The Invisible Tenants

by Kishimjan Osmonova

kishimjanAstana, the new capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, has become a major migrant destination attracting thousands of internal as well as external migrants from neighboring Central Asian states. The city’s population tripled in the last decade making it number around one million residents today. The migrants are a diverse group with different backgrounds, professions, and places of origin. Most of them are young and ambitious people seeking better opportunities in the futuristic capital, which is referred as the City of the Future. Inspired by the capital’s shimmering look and construction boom many are determined to stay and create their prosperous future. Realizing this goal is not easy and one of the problems they face is propiska.

Propiska, a Russian term meaning ‘city registration’, is all too familiar to every post-Soviet citizen, including Central Asians. Propiska has acquired a powerful new meaning; it gives individuals the legal right to reside in a city and secures access to social benefits. As cross border and rural-urban migration studies have shown, lack of proper propiska excludes city residents from crucial social security benefits like health care and pension, and restricts their access to public goods and other services. As a consequence it creates a new group of socially marginalized people who face discrimination and increasingly criminalization. In Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, land grabbing led to the creation of new settlements with no infrastructure. Almaty has similar issues with new settlements. Rural migrants in Tashkent who lack propiska become easy targets for Uzbek police, who criminalize them and extort bribes. Russia’s number one concern is to control unregistered Central Asian labor migrants who manage their everyday life and find work with false propiskas. In Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, obtaining an official propiska proves very difficult as well. However, the solution is to purchase false propiskas from the numerous ads the local newspapers offer. In fact, it is relatively easy to purchase such falsified versions in Astana. Still new residents in Astana are frustrated when they cannot get an official propiska since it means they will have problems finding a proper job. So most of those who cannot obtain propiskas feel they are invisible and have no right to social securities.

Usually local residents or those who own a flat or home sell fake propiskas at their place of residence. Alia, a young woman from Taraz, says that ‘I sit at home now because I have no propiska. I wanted to work but without a propiska they don’t even consider you for a job. I bought a propiska from private people for three days from the newspaper ads for 15 000 tenge.’ Still Alia was not sure if she was really registered at this person’s home. A pensioner who came to live with her son and daughter in law in Astana also bought a propiska. ‘It is very hard to get a propiska. But you can buy it for money; everything is possible with money. I paid 5,000 for a propiska for a month from a private person. But I am not sure if I am still registered at this address, they might de-register you and you wouldn’t even know about it. One just needs to present it to one’s employer; it’s a formality thing.’ Migrants need to renew such propiskas after every two or three months depending on the price they paid. This also allows many internal migrants to navigate in the city. Many migrants complain how easy it is for locals who do not have to work but sell such propiskas and earn money. They even consider it a form of exploitation. So migrants tend to be registered falsely at one place of residence while their actual living address differs.

In addition, false propiska makes migrants easy targets of rental exploitation. Most migrants rent flats and then find themselves in a situation in which they are unprotected. For instance, the rents in Astana are too high and incompatible with the low salaries many migrants earn. Most migrants are employed in the poorly paid service sector. To rent one room generally costs at least 25,000 Kazakh tenge monthly (equivalent to $166 at 2010 rates); a one-room flat costs from 50,000 tenge ($330). An official average salary in Astana for 2008 was 79,368 Kazakh tenge per month ($529) but the incomes vary enormously. Migrants share flats and rooms; usually there are between three and four people in one room, and six to seven people in the whole flat. Such housing conditions are the most common, but also the least registered. There are no statistics about the number of such tenants. Landlords and tenants often do not have written contracts and must thus rely on mutual trust and oral agreements. In the absence of legal enforcement of contractual rights and obligations, tenants become very vulnerable and easy prey for dishonest landlords. There are many cases when tenants are forced to vacate the flat without being notified in advance or even after paying the rent in advance. Landlords, in turn, do not register their tenants so as to avoid paying taxes on extra income they earn or being fined for violating rent regulations.

The official statistics discuss the inflow and outflow of the city population and record its ethnic composition based on propiska registration records. However, despite the efforts of the state to restrict the inflow of internal migration through the institution of propiska, it does not serve as a major hindrance. Young people are drawn to the urban lifestyle and the potentials it offers. Migrants desperately want to stay in the city and thus try their luck in the city’s competitive labor market. For many, the option of returning to their place of origin is unimaginable after they have experienced the dynamics of city life and seen that there have been few changes in their hometowns or villages. It also means that they would rather accept crowded living conditions and poorly paid jobs in the cities. Officials are only now recognizing the need to control the rental market in order to tax this source of income and regulate this market more closely. In the meantime, the Soviet legacy of propiska remains a powerful instrument to control population movement within the state. Today the state authorities exercise even more power over their city population, restricting access to social security to vulnerable groups such as city migrants who need it the most.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Kishimjan Osmonova is a PhD candidate at the Central Asian Seminar (Humboldt University, Berlin). Her dissertation focuses on internal migrants in Astana and everyday practices in post-Soviet cities.