How Central Asian Migrants Experience Politics in Turkey and Russia: A Comparison

by Jeanne Féaux de La Croix

JeanneWebPicHow might moving abroad for work influence your political ideas and ideals? How might migrating from Central Asia to Turkey or Russia in particular, change a person’s ideas about political leadership, nationalism or religion? This January, a group of distinguished scholars, activists and migrants met in Istanbul to find answers. Russia and Turkey are popular destinations for citizens of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics; as elsewhere, migration figures are hotly debated. It is clear however that several million Central Asians temporarily or permanently settle in Russia, while Turkey is sought out by a few hundred thousand. Tajikistan holds the sad record of being among the top three nations most dependent on remittances.

But it is not only the critical mass of mobile people that makes the comparison of Turkey and Russia compelling. As successors to empires, both claim a long history of engagement with Central Asia and different kinds of ‘brotherhood’ – ‘Turkic’ or ‘Soviet’. Both countries recently shifted from being regions ‘exporting’ workers to ‘importing’ them. Each has recently enjoyed an economic upswing and developed increasingly muscular nationalism. At the same time, Russia and Turkey steer very different political courses, for example in relation to political Islam. The so-called ‘migration problem’ also plays a very different role in public: the 2013 Moscow mayoral election saw candidates across the political spectrum instrumentalizing the issue, fostering much xenophobia in the Russian press. In Turkey meanwhile, ‘interior enemies’ seem to draw attention away not only from Central Asian, but also from African labour migrants.

What do Central Asians living in Turkey and Russia make of all this? Have their experiences abroad made people change their ideas about freedom, styles of political leadership or relations between religion and state? At some level, migration is likely to be a politicizing experience, because it allows you to compare what you know with another way of doing politics. Newcomers might find a new kind of police to admire or fear, a different way of accessing health-care or finding a job. Central Asians might suddenly find it necessary to struggle for rights, or find it more opportune to keep a low profile. Understanding the political experiences and reactions of Central Asian migrants is worthwhile not only because migrants send large sums of money back home, but also because they are likely to send home new political ideas and practices. So far, we cannot trace a Central Asian ‘Gezi Park’, but there are several opposition movements that operate from abroad, such as the moderate Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. From bases in Turkey, religious organizations such as the Gülen movement, but also Pan-Turkic sensibilities strongly influence interactions in Central Asia. The deputy mayor of Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district is of Kazakh descent: a similar level of standing is hard to imagine in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, foreign workers in both states face murky, fast-changing and “Catch 22”-type regulations that make it very hard to feel safe as a ‘legal’ resident.

New cultural practices are being hatched by mass migration: Tajiks attending their father’s funeral service via Skype, middle-class Turks referring to stereotyped hierarchies of prestige and price in choosing between Turkmen, Moldovan and Filipino home-helps. While such painful phenomena are part of new mass movements, it is not true that labour migration was unknown before the collapse of the Soviet Union: by 1989 there were already a quarter of a million Central Asians living in Russia. Central Asians living in late-Soviet Russia tell very polarized stories about their experiences: some remember comfort, rule of law and full acceptance by fellow Soviet citizens, while others tell tales of discrimination and corruption. A hundred years earlier, Central Asians could sometimes successfully call on the Ottoman sultan (in the role of caliph) for protection. But the Ottoman state also tried to stop poorer Central Asians from attempting the hajj because they feared the costs of supporting them, if they became destitute.

At the meeting, we were struck by a palpable absence of solidarity between migrant organizations of different ethnic groups. Here scholars and others could certainly put their networks to use in helping such organizations bridge political divides and work more effectively against exploitation, and prevent them from being treated like third class citizens of the world. Although the migration topic is widely discussed in Central Asia, we found little is known of how relocation affects Central Asians’ political ideas and activities. There is great potential for investigating Central Asians’ experiences of inclusion or exclusion, gender, religion or historical claims in Turkey and Russia – and what they make of these. İn the future, will we see political parties that specialize in catering to migrants and their families in Central Asia, as they do in the Caribbean? Or will we see the establishment of ‘diaspora ministries’, as in Armenia and Georgia?

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:

Jeanne Féaux de la Croix coordinates a Junior Research Group (Cultural history of water in Central Asia) at the University of Tübingen. She completed her PhD on moral geographies in Kyrgyzstan at the University of St. Andrews in 2010. She held a number of research fellowships at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, pursuing research on concepts of work, age and hydropower in Kyrgyzstan. The author is currently co-editing a special volume on everyday experiences of energy and energy policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and hopes to pursue more collaborative research on Central Asians’ experience in Turkey and Russia.