Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation has become one of the most important destinations for immigration in the world, second only to the United States and equal to Germany. Unlike Europe, however, the majority of people going to Russia aren’t political refugees and asylum seekers, but economic migrants looking for employment opportunities.
Most of the migrants are from the former Soviet space, with Central Asia at the forefront of this massive human flow. Tens of thousands leave the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan every year to find seasonal employment in Russia’s main cities. Many stay for years, others never return, but their remittances form an important share of their country’s economy. The World Bank estimates that, in 2014, money sent back home by migrants represented 36% of Tajikistan’s GDP, and 30% of Kyrgyzstan’s.
Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan presents the story of ten immigrants from Kyrgyzstan living in Moscow, showing the diverse reality of millions of immigrant workers in Russia in their own words. It also broaches various themes that affect their everyday lives, such as the overbearing and corrupt Russian bureaucracy, harassment from the police, and anti-immigrant sentiment among the general population. It looks into the effect of the current economic crisis in Russia on the lives of migrant workers and the changes that followed Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union in August 2015.
To provide context, the stories of the ten characters are punctuated by comments from two leading Russian experts on migration—Dmitry Poletaev and Valery Solovei—as well as an exchange between participants to a round table in Moscow on the need to introduce a visa regime for Central Asian migrants to Russia.
Franco Galdini, Producer & scriptwriter
Chingiz Narynov, Director
Susannah Tresilian, Narrator
Soundtrack by Salt Peanuts
Thanks a billion to Bermut Borubaeva for the heads-up. The extraordinary challenges faced by Central Asian migrants in Russia have been an abiding theme of this website over the nearly thirteen years of its existence and will continue to be in the future. // TRR
Central Asian migrant workers queuing outside the Russian Interior Ministry’s work permit application center on Red Textile Worker Street in St. Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Should Everyone Disappear into the Shadows? What the Fee Increase for Migrant Worker Permits Entails
Yekaterina Ivashchenko Fergana News
November 29, 2018
The license [in Russian, patent] system for foreign nationals seeking permission to work in Russia was introduced in 2015. The cost of a work permit has varied from one region to the next. In Moscow, for example, it initially cost 4,000 rubles a month. In 2016, the price rose by 5% to 4,200 rubles, and in 2018, it rose by 7% to 4,500 rubles.
It is absolutely necessary to have a work permit. Without it, a migrant worker faces up to 7,000 rubles in fines, expulsion from Russia, and a ban on entering the country for a period of three to ten years. Employers who hire employees without work permits are punishable by fines, and their operations can be suspended for up to ninety days.
Something important happened on November 21, 2018. The Moscow City Duma approved a law bill increasing the cost of a work permit in Moscow. In 2019, it will rise by 500 rubles (11%) and cost 5,000 rubles a month (approx. $75).
The next day, November 22, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the city’s revenues from legal migrant workers had been growing and would exceed 16 billion rubles ($241 million) by year’s end.
“By paying such a high price for permits, migrant workers have come to occupy a fair position vis-à-vis Russian nationals [rossiyane] working in Moscow, because in the past they paid nothing at all, and, of course, it was profitable to employ them, but the situation has changed today,” said the mayor.
On January 1, 2019, the cost of a license for migrant workers seeking employment in Moscow Region will increase by 450 rubles. The Moscow Region work permit, which cost 4,300 rubles ($64.60) in 2018, will cost 4,750 rubles ($71.50) per month in 2019.
Taras Yefimov, chair of the Moscow Regional Duma’s budget, finance and tax committee, said the measure would enrich the region’s coffers by around one billion rubles [approx. $15 million]. In 2018, Moscow Region made six billion rubles [approx. $90.5 million] on migrant work permits.
St. Petersburg has decided to raise the price of the work permit from 3,500 to 3,800 rubles a month. City officials noted the decision was made because foreign nationals had begun earning considerably more money.
Filling out the forms for extending a work permit. Photo courtesy of Fmskam.ru and Fergana News
Wages Are Not Growing
Svetlana Salamova, director of Migranto.ru, a website for migrant workers looking for jobs and employers seeking to hire migrant workers, has not seen the real growth in the wages of migrant workers that officials have cited.
“The wages of foreign nationals who are employed on the basis of work permits has remained at the level of 29,000 rubles to 35,000 rubles [$435–$525] a month. Maybe the Moscow authorities are focused on high-profile specialists who make 168,000 rubles a month officially?” Salamova sarcastically wondered.
Salamova has noticed wage increases only among Kyrgyz nationals. After Kyrgyzstan joined the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union), employers offered them 40,000 to 45,000 rubles a month.
“But they work without permits. (EAEU nationals can work in Russia without permits as long as they have an employment contract — Fergana News.) Besides, many Kyrgyzstanis agree to low wages of 19,000 to 20,000 rubles a month. They work part time in several places at once, and so ultimately they make a decent amount of money,” explained Salamova.
Salamova did not discount the possibility that fees for work permits have been raised in light of the fact that employers must index wages for inflation as of the new year. Perhaps the authorities decided to increase the cost of permits for foreign national because they took into account this indexation of wages on the Moscow job market.
Immigration center in Moscow. Photo courtesy of Mos.ru and Fergana News
But what do migrant workers themselves have to say about it?
“Since 2015, the fee for the work permit has increased three times, but I have not even once received a raise. We spend little as it is: 4,500 rubles for the permit, plus the fee for residence registration; 6,000 rubles on rent, 5,000 on groceries, 2,000 on transportation. I sometimes buy clothes and medicines, and there are unforeseen expenses, like when my phone stops working. So, I have only 10,000 rubles left over from my monthly salary of 35,000 rubles. The latest 500-ruble increase will definitely affect my expenses. 6,000 rubles a year is a lot of money: an average family in Tajikistan could live for a month on that amount. It means my relatives back home will have to get by one month of the year without receiving a remittance from me,” said Magomed, who comes from Khujand, Tajikistan’s second-largest city.
Pushed into the Gray Economy
In June 2017, Mayor Sobyanin said the problem of illegal migrant workers in Moscow had been solved and had ceased to be a source of concern for Muscovites. Most migrant workers were employed legally and duly paid their taxes.
Experts believe the increase in the price of the work permit could lead to a rise in the number of foreign workers who decide not to pay taxes.
“The cost of the work permit will increase by 11%. An extra 6,000 rubles a year might not seem like a huge amount of money. But for migrant workers, who earn this money literally with their blood, living far from their families, and undergoing numerous hardships and risks, this is not a small amount at all: the overall cost of a permit for a year will be 60,000 rubles or $900. Some migrant workers will thus decide to go off the books. Consequently, Moscow’s budget is unlikely to get a huge boost, but the city will be supporting a policy of pushing migrant workers into the gray economy with all the attendant social consequences,” says Professor Sergey Abashin.
“It is odd that Moscow MPs say we will start earning more. Every migrant worker pays around 12,000 rubles to get a work permit in the first place. Then every month he pays for the work permit and his residence registration, he pays the rent, and he buys groceries. He even has to pay bribes to the police. People are taking money from us at every turn. What will we have left to send home?” said Muhammad, who is originally from Samarkand.
Batyrzhon Shermuhammad, a lawyer and founder of the website Migrant, also sees no signs of a wage increase.
“If you look at the want ads, you will see that the wages of migrant workers who are employed on the basis of work permits range from 25,000 rubles to 35,000 rubles a month. We monitor the job market, and no one mentions anything about a salary of 40,000 rubles a month. On the contrary, the economic crisis in Russia has been deepening. There is inflation, and the dollar/ruble exchange rate has been rising, which affects the remittances sent by migrant workers,” Shermuhammad said.
The latest increase in the cost of the work permit will force migrant workers to retreat into the shadows, he argues.
“One could understand the increase if the economic situation had improved, but the trends are negative: the prices in shops have increased, and the dollar has become more expensive vis-à-vis the ruble. People have no money, and so they have been having problems with residence registrations. Also, by law you cannot be late paying for your work permit even by a day. If a migrant worker is paid his wages late, he cannot pay the fee for his work permit, and he has no way of shelling out approximately 12,000 rubles to have a new work permit drawn up. While introduction of the work permit system brought migrant workers out of the shadows, the subsequent tightening of immigration laws and the increase in their expenses has been leaving migrant workers with fewer chances to stay legal, even if they would want to,” Shermuhammad said.
Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Photo courtesy of Kloop.kg and Fergana News
“Even though I make good money, a 6,000-ruble increase in the price of the work permit is a serious expense, and I have huge expenses aside from the permit. My mother, sister, and I pay 33,000 rubles a month for a place to live. That is 11,000 rubles per person, plus utilities. In addition, I have to pay the fees for my studies twice a year: that is another 100,000 rubles each time. We don’t spend a lot on food, no more than 10,000 rubles per person a month. I also spend money on transportation, clothes, and gifts, and I spend 5,000 to 7,000 rubles a month for English lessons. Lately, we have not been sending a lot of money home, $200 to $300 per month at most. Mom and I used to be able to save money, but in the last six months our expenses have skyrocketed, and after the new year they will increase even more due to the work permit. Basically, the increase in the work permit fee means I won’t be able to pay for English lessons for a month,” said Ilkhom, who hails from Tashkent.
“For migrant workers, 500 rubles is a mobile phone connection for a month,” said human rights active Karimjon Yorov. “It is the cost of a week’s worth of subway trips. It is two lunches, finally. For families with children, it means being able to buy school supplies or pay for school lunches. In short, 500 rubles is a lot of money.”
Yorov argues that raising the cost of the work permit will make migrant workers not want to pay for it, meaning that revenues to Moscow’s coffers will actually decrease.
“Migrant workers will prefer to work without a permit and cross the border every three months. Currently, a trip to the border and back (i.e., exit and re-entry) costs 8,000 rubles in total, while the cost of a work permit for three months is 13,500 rubles, meaning they save 5,500 rubles by exiting Russia and re-entering it. This comes to 22,000 rubles, plus 12,000 rubles for the initial paperwork. The total is 34,000 rubles, which is the same as the cost of round-trip plane ticket to Uzbekistan. When you do the maths, it makes more financial sense for migrant workers to be off the books. The authorities themselves are forcing migrant workers underground, especially now that the laws on immigration registration have been tightened. Whether you get a work permit or not, if you do not live at the address where you are registered, you will be deported. Migrant workers will emerge from the underground only when the law on immigration registration has been abolished,” Yorov concluded.
Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
Finally I’m writing again about migrant workers, a subject that right at the moment interests very few people.
Data on remittances by private individuals from Russia to other countries for the first quarter of 2018 has been released by the Russian Central Bank after a great delay. Here is the picture they present.
Uzbekistan was the leader among the CIS countries. Its nationals remitted $726 million, which is 17% more than in the first quarter last year.
Tajikistan came in second place with $487 million, which is 15% more than the same time last year.
Kyrgyzstan took third place with $434 million, 9% up from the first quarter last year.
The figures thus show a significant increase in remittances, which testifies to an growth in the wages paid to migrant workers and an increase in the numbers of migrant workers themselves. Remittances to Kyrgyzstan have been growing more slowly, but in fact that means a large portion of the money earned by Kyrgyz nationals now stays in Russia to be spent on setting up their lives here.
P.S. By the way, the champion in terms of private remittances received from Russia is Switzerland—to the tune of $1.7 billion.
Very few people are interested in reading about migrant workers in Russia. True, many people readily believe the myths and repeat them, but they don’t want to get to the bottom of things, even if you hand them the data on a silver platter. This apathetic attitude to figures and facts is also typical of how migration is regarded.
I wrote yesterday [see below] about the trends in the numbers of migrant workers from the Central Asian countries in Russia for 2014–2016. Let me remind you that the number of Kyrgyz nationals first fell and then began to grow, exceeding the previous highs by 10%. The figure is now about 0.6 million people. (I am rounding up). The number of Tajik nationals has decreased by 15–25% and has been at the same level, about 0.9 million people, for over a year, while the number of Uzbek nationals has decreased by 30–40%, to 1.5 million people.
Now let us look at the data on remittances, all the more since the Central Bank of Russia has published the final figures for 2016. In 2016, private remittances from Russia to Kyrgyzstan amounted to slightly more than $1.7 billion, which is 17% less than during the peak year of 2013, but 26% more than in 2015. Meaning that, along with an increase in the number of migrants, the amount of remittances has grown quickly as well, even at a faster pace. Remittances to Tajikistan amounted to slightly more than $1.9 billion in 2016, which is 54% less than the peak year of 2013. The amounts have been continuing to fall, although this drop has slowed as the number of migrant workers has stabilized. Remittances to Uzbekistan were slightly more than $2.7 billion in 2016, which is 59% less than in the peak year of 2013. Meaning the largest drop in the number of migrants has led to the largest drop in remittances.
Data on the number of foreign nationals living and working in Russia has not been made public since April 2016, when the Federal Migration Service was disbanded. But this does not mean there is no such data. The figures exist, and they become available from time to time. For example, an article published in RBC [on March 16, 2017] supplies some data as of February 1, 2017. What follows from the figures?
The number of Kyrgyz nationals has increased since February 2016 by 5.6%, and since February 2015 by 8.9%, and amounts to 593,760 people.
The number of Tajik nationals increased by 0.7% over the past year, and by 13.3% over two years, and amounts to 866,679 people.
The number of Uzbek nationals has decreased over the past year by 15.2%, and by 31.7% over two years, and now amounts to 1,513,694 people.
So we see three different trends. After Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Community [now, the Eurasian Economic Union], the number of its nationals in Russia has continued to grown. After a decline of 15–20%, the number of Tajik nationals has stabilized, while the number of Uzbek nationals has fallen by 30–40%.
There are slightly less than a total of 3 million people from Central Asia living and working in Russia. (I did not take Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan into account. If I had, the figure would have come to about 3.6 million people.)
Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in Saint Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader
Putin Proclaims National Idea Fontanka.ru
February 3, 2016
In Russia, there can be no other unifying idea than patriotism, argues President Vladimir Putin, as reported by TASS.
“This is, in fact, the national idea,” the head of state announced during a meeting with the Leaders Club, which brings together entrepreneurs from forty of the country’s regions.
According to Putin, this idea is not ideologized and is not linked to the work of a particular party, reports RIA Novosti.
“It is a common rallying point. If we want to live better, the country has to be more attractive to all citizens and more effective,” the president stressed.
Who Killed a Transsexual in Ufa and Why? Ufa1.ru
February 2, 2016
On Monday, February 1, Angela Likina was stabbed in the chest and killed in Ufa. The Ufa resident had gained notoriety in 2014, when a video recorded on a traffic police dashcam entitled “Ufa Traffic Cops Stop a Transvestite” [sic] went viral on the Web. Ufa1.ru found out who killed Oleg Vorobyov, who had changed his sex and become Angela Likina, and why.
The controversial video from the traffic police car dashcam recorded an inspector checking the papers of a female motorist. It transpired, however, that the motorist’s name, according to his internal passport, was Oleg Vorobyov. The inspector was very surprised by this. The motorist was a transsexual who had been preparing for a sex change operation for several years, becoming Angela Likina. The restricted video was leaked to the Web.
Later, the State Auto Inspectorate conducted a review of the incident, because the restricted footage should have not ended up on the Web. Angela Likina also commented on the video herself. She was surprised the incident had provoked so much interest among Web users.
“People die in accidents, children get hurt, cars are stolen, blood is needed to save someone’s life. Gentlemen, why are you setting records for likes and reposts about me? I honestly don’t understand,” said Likina, adding, “I don’t care how you live, what you do, and so on, so long as you are alive, healthy, and happy. But my life does not concern you in absolutely any way.”
How Did Oleg Live?
Ufa1.ru spoke with friends and acquaintances of Angela Likina, who talked about the life of the murdered woman. We found out this sad ending had emerged from a number of factors. Before becoming Angela Likina, Oleg Vorobyov had been married. Acquaintances confess that, outwardly, the couple were seemingly happy. They were raising two daughters, now aged fourteen and nine. The family lived in a private house, which also housed Oleg’s auto repair garage. Many of the people with whom we spoke said automobile owners were satisfied with Oleg’s work, that he had a magic touch.
Over five years ago, Oleg realized he was living in someone else’s body. He understood he wanted to change his sex and become the person he thought he was. Oleg began calling himself Angela Likina and started the complicated process of preparing to change his sex. He took hormone pills and began dressing like a woman. According to his internal passport, however, he remained Oleg Vorobyov. He could only change his name after finally changing his sex.
Five years ago, the Vorobyovs divorced, but the former husband and wife and their two children kept living under the same roof. The house was the wife’s property, and her former husband had an established business there. Several of the family’s acquaintances believe that Angela did not want to lose her income from the auto repair garage and spend money on renting a place to live. After all, she had to save up a large sum of money for the operation, and the medicines she took to prepare for the procedure were expensive. Close friends emphasize that Angela worked a lot, sometimes seven days a week.
At the same time, Ufa1.ru’s sources noted the Ufa resident simply had no choice.
“He once tried to rent a flat, but was kicked out. A neighbor had said, ‘I don’t want my children to see this!’ Consequently, he was evicted and didn’t even get his money back,” said one of our sources.
Friends of the family noted that those who have lived under the same roof with ex-spouses can imagine the atmosphere that prevailed in the Vorobyov house. Some say that the rows over living arrangements caused the Vorobyovs to come to blows. Things were aggravated by the fact that the head of the family had become a woman. Their children also became the targets of reproaches and ridicule at school.
“They would come home in tears, and sometimes refuse to go to school, but Angela loved her daughters and gave them a lot of time,” acquaintances noted.
Who Killed Angela?
According to friends, a boyfriend came to visit Oleg’s ex-wife on the ill-fated evening. The criminal investigation will shed more light on what exactly happened in the house. For now, the family’s acquaintances have their own hypotheses. Perhaps the man intervened in yet another family row. Maybe he stood up for his girlfriend and wanted to intimidate Angela by demanding she pack her things and leave. The row, however, escalated into something bigger.
“She was stabbed in the chest near the heart. She did not die immediately. She made it to a neighbor’s house, told him what had happened and who had done it, and an ambulance was summoned. Then Angela died in the neighbor’s arms. It was apparently too late to help her. I don’t know what was happening in the family. Angela was a good person, but strangers often beat her up. Her neighbors respected her choice. It is a bad thing when a person steals, kills or rapes, but everything else is a private matter,” said an acquaintance of Angela’s.
“The best human qualities—kindness, fairness, compassion, and unselfishness—were powerfully manifested in her. Unfortunately, that is a rarity nowadays. And she really never held a grudge against anyone, although there were a fairly large number of people who wished her ill. Most of them, it is true, were people who did not know her at all. They insulted and mocked her. You could say she was understanding about it: far from everyone in our city, or even our country, is ready to comprehend the decision to have a sex change. And that is another reason I have endless respect for her: the determination to go her own way to the end, to change her life fundamentally, the willingness to take one and overcome all the difficulties,” another girlfriend of Angela’s confided to Ufa1.ru.
“Apparently, Angela sensed her impending death. Not long before this she had asked forgiveness from her wife for all the rows that had happened between them,” said another family acquaintance.
Fire at Moscow workshop kills 12 people, including 3 children Boston Globe
January 31, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS, JANUARY 31, 2016, MOSCOW — A fire at a textile workshop in Moscow has killed 12 people, including three children, officials said.
The victims were not identified but were reportedly immigrants.
The Investigative Committee, the top state investigative agency, said the fire broke out late Saturday in northeastern Moscow, damaging more than 32,000 square feet of the structure.
Investigators said they are looking at negligence or arson as possible causes.
Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, said Sunday on his Twitter account that three children were among those who died, including a baby. He said the victims were migrant workers who lived next to their workplace.
Several dozen fire engines responded to the blaze, and it took firefighters about five hours to extinguish the blaze.
Investigators continued to sift through the rubble Sunday for evidence.
Many immigrants work in Russian factories, some of which have been investigated for hazardous working conditions. In April, a blaze on the outskirts of Moscow killed 17 migrant workers.
The death toll of Kyrgyz citizens (according to the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic in the Russian Federation):
1. Sajida Masaliyeva, born 1988. Home address: Village of Kyzyl-Bel, Batken District, Batken Region.
2. Toktokan Saliyeva, born 1983. Home address: Village of Tayan, Batken District, Batken Region.
3. Uulkan Saliyeva, born 1997, sister of Toktokan Saliyeva.
4. Isa kizi Aizat, born 1995. According to available information, Isa was a native of the Village of Kaiyndy, Batken Region.
5. Milikajdar uulu Koshonbay, born 1990.
6. Tologon Kozuyev, born 1991.
7. Manas, born 1995; brother of Tologon Kozuyev; no other details.
8. Daniel, 4-5 years old, son of Ergeshbay Japarov, a Russian national who perished in the fire; born in the village of Rout, Batken District, Batken Region; according to the victims, Daniel was a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic.
[Elena Bobrova:] You are something of a patriot yourself?
[Nikolai Kolyada:] How else should I relate to Russia? I love her whatever she be like. Like Gogol I can tell the whole unvarnished truth about her. And Nikolai Vasilyevich said such awful things about Russia. He sobbed bloody tears when thinking about the country. But not because he hated it. On the contrary, because he loved it. When foreigners start speaking badly about Russia, I begin to boil: “Shut up, it is none of your business. I have the right to say anything about her, but you do not.” Well, it is okay when Europeans or Americans sling mud at us: they have a hard time coping with the fact we are different, unpredictable, and freer than they are. But when our own people hate their own country, that is terrible. This morning, I was reading Facebook and I thought, “Why do you live here if you hate Russia so much?”
[Bobrova:] But you just said yourself we have a right to chew out Russia because we live here.
[Kolyada:] Chew out but not hate. But Facebook is just seething with hatred.
—Excerpted from “20% of the Petersburg audience are loonies,” Gorod 812 (print edition), February 1, 2016, page 34
Items one, two, four, and six translated by the Russian Reader
“Are there really feminists in Kirghizia?” my mom had wondered before I left.
On the way from the airport to Bishkek the collective’s leader, Selbi, corrected my speech several times.
“It’s not Kirghizia, but Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyz, not Kirghiz.”
In fact, the local Russians speak the way they are used to, and no one pays any mind to their use of “Kirghiz.” But when a Kyrgyz says it, it is insulting and even offensive. It means someone who is Russified and has forgotten the traditions of their people. Besides, the word “kirghiz” means “forbidden to enter.”
Gusya, a member of Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ: “My parents told me that at school they were forbidden to speak Kyrgyz.”
“You don’t live in Kirghizia, but in the Soviet Union, one country for everyone,” Russian teachers would explain.
The majority of people in the capital of Kyrgyzstan still speak Russian. While I was in Bishkek, I heard from several Kyrgyz that Russians had symbolic capital, because they were seen as more cultured and educated. The local Russians I met said they were not the titular nation, and a glass ceiling inevitably awaited them in the civil service, for example. But they had not encountered serious harassment in daily life.
The Problem of Migration
“How can you develop the country when half its population doesn’t live in it?”
I was invited to draw at the Mekendeshter Forum (“Compatriots” Forum), organized by the ex-President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva. The forum dealt with the issue of emigration from the country. It was held in the spacious, beautifully designed Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, which the Turks opened in Bishkek in 1997. On one side of the stage hung a large portrait of Ataturk; on the other side, an image of Manas, the Kyrgyz epic hero. The forum program included a separate discussion on cooperation between the “fraternal countries” of Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Many Kyrgyz have in recent years preferred to go to work in Turkey. Several speakers emphasized that in Turkey, compared to Russia, there was much more respect for the Kyrgyz diaspora. The Islamization of Kyrgyzstan has accompanied Turkey’s growing influence.
Almost half the speakers at the forum spoke in Russian. There wasn’t a separate panel on cooperation with Russia, but the subject constantly came up, first of all, in connection with Kyrgyzstan’s possible accession to the Eurasian Customs Union.
Woman on left: “Our government is promoting the interests of a foreign country and is prepared to restrict the freedoms of its own citizens.” Kyrgyz Prime Minister (at lectern): “It’s only an economic union.”
Many speakers criticized the decision.
(in Kyrgyz) “The borders of the Customs Union are the borders of the Iron Curtain. Will we be turning our back on other countries?”
Will accession to the Customs Union impact the country’s domestic policies? Members of the Kyrgyz parliament are already pushing through bad imitations of Russian laws, for example, a law on “foreign agents,” almost identical to the Russian law, or introduction of criminal liability for disseminating information about LGBT. Moreover, the law would cover not only “propaganda among minors,” as in the Russia “18 and over” law.
During my stay in Bishkek, there was a scandal at a contemporary art show. In his Spider-Man series, the artist Chingiz had depicted a spider in Kyrgyz national headdress. He was immediately summoned to the GKNB (the State Committee on National Security, the local version of the FSB) and bombarded with threats on the Internet.
Chingiz: “I’m threatened with violence for insulting the national heritage.”
Joining the Customs Union will make it easier to travel to Russia to work and increase emigration many times over. However, speakers at the forum said that Kyrgyzstan already suffered from a lack of specialists and, in some areas, just plain laborers.
Ex-President Roza Otunbayeva: “There has been and will continue to be a growing demand for Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia.”
You can find what Russian citizens have to say about Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Customs Union by doing a Google search. Most often, they are predictably outraged by “parasite wogs” or happy about “reunification of the Russian lands.” There are also a few liberal comments to the effect of “but somebody has to do the dirty work for us.”
“The money earned by migrant workers is not spent on their children’s educations.”
Most often, the money earned by migrant workers is not spent on their own education, healthcare, buying real estate or starting a small business. Money earned over several years can be spent in a single month on a toi.
A toi is a celebration with plenty of refreshments. Its main difference from an ordinary holiday feast is that there must be so much food that the guests will not be able to eat it all and will take food home with them. When a circumcision is celebrated, guests come for a month. To do a toi at a wedding, a loan is taken out which is then paid back for years on end.
The closing of the forum was held at the Supara Ethno Complex in the outskirts of Bishkek. The refreshments and alcohol never once ran low. The party ended around midnight. Guests took the leftover food home in special toi bags.
Feminism Kyrgyz Style
Baktygul, Daria, and Meerim
These are Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan. Members of the group are between thirteen and seventeen years old. They are preparing to apply for a grant to the FRIDA Young Feminist Fund. If they get the grant, they will hold a manaschi contest for girls.
Manaschis are male reciters of the Epic of Manas. However, female reciters have recently emerged.
Baktygul (reciting the Manas) and Daria
Baktygul, a member of the Girl Activists, is a manaschi. According to her, boys are specially trained, and their teachers serve as judges on reciting contest juries. Girls study on their own, and they have virtually no chance of winning at general competitions.
I asked the girls about ala kachuu, bride kidnapping. Two of them said their mothers had been kidnapped.
“It was a schooltime romance. My mom wanted to study, but she had to get married,” one of them said.
“My cousins in the twenty-first century kidnapped brides,” said Daria. “Four guys tried to kidnap my female cousin. She is very big, and she tried to fight them off. They could barely handle her.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being kidnapped?” I asked.
“No. There is a law. We’ll tell them, ‘Articles 154 and 155 of the Criminal Code. Do you want to get sent up for ten years?'”
The punishment was toughened in 2013. Previously, kidnappers of underage “brides” had faced three to five years in prison, but only a fine if the girl had turned seventeen. Two years of advocacy by the Women’s Support Center and Open Line, as well as the activism of women’s groups around the country, had led to the law’s amendment. Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ held one of the biggest protest actions in the campaign in downtown Bishkek. They planted 19,300 little flags. 9,800 flags stood for the number of women abducted in a single year. 2,000 white flags stood for the number of women raped during abduction, while 7,500 purple flags stood for the number of women who had reported domestic violence.
Selbi (left) and Farida: “Girls stop being taken to Eid celebrations from the age of nine.”
This is Farida, a Dungan and a member of Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ. I visited her home during the Muslim festival of Eid, which takes place after Ramadan. Families stop taking girls along for holiday visits, because they begin serving at the celebrations by cooking and cleaning up after the numerous guests.
Dungan families are very large: several generations live together, and there is rigid hierarchy among members. The lives of girls and women are subordinated to the household. As a child, Farida was used to getting up at six in the morning to work in the house. She was not allowed to play with other children.
“The house was my only space,” she said.
Farida had to fight for the right to go to school. When she met the feminists and took up activism herself, pressure from family members was so strong she had to run away from home. Farida had been one of the main organizers of the flags rally.
After a year of living in the feminist community, Farida returned home. Influenced by her daughter, Farida’s mother, Sofia, had become interested in women’s rights and was able to change how things were done in their home.
Farida’s younger sister Maria has free time. She can play with other children, draw, and go to school. Maria: “If a cat looks at someone who is eating, it can take his life.”
“A week after giving birth, Dungan women go back to work in the fields.”
Young Kyrgyz women made the following comments about the drawing above.
“They have too much time off!”
“My grandmother gave birth in the field and just went on working.”
“Kyrgyz women are hardier!”
Hard female and child labor still persists in Kyrgyz villages.
“When they are six, children must think about providing for themselves. When they are nine, they have to earn money for textbooks and school uniforms. Teenagers are hired to pick raspberries and other berries. They work every day for ten hours.”
Officially, there are no LGBT in Kyrgyzstan. Homosexuality is permissible for Russians, but certainly not for Kyrgyz.
I visited the only LGBT club in Bishkek and, probably, in Kyrgyzstan. Nearly all the patrons were Kyrgyz. There were only a few female couples: lesbians are even more closeted in Kyrgyzstan than gays.
As in Russia, beatings, rapes, and murders of gays, lesbians, and transgenders are widespread in Kyrgyzstan. After passage of the homophobic law in Russia, attacks on LGBT activists have become more frequent.
I talked to several patrons at the club, but I won’t write anything about them. Bishkek is a small city, and mentioning any particulars could be dangerous.
“We are constantly faced with humiliation and insults. We can’t imagine how to go on living. How do we find a partner? How do we tell our parents? Or how do we make sure our parents don’t find out? How do we leave the club safely?
During debates about the law bill proposing criminal liability for “promoting” homosexuality, Kyrgyz MPs claimed they were standing together with Russia to protect the Eastern world against the Western world. Many middlebrows probably appreciate this stance. They don’t follow events in Russia and don’t know that if we allow the state to infringe on the rights of one social group, we are no longer able to stop the flood of laws censoring all areas of our lives. It would be sad if the same future awaits Kyrgyzstan’s nascent civil society.
Recent publications in English by and about Victoria Lomasko: