CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: How many of the Russians who fled Putin’s war machine for Kazakhstan stayed there?

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: How many of the Russians who fled Putin’s war machine for Kazakhstan stayed there?
Vladimir Putin's mobilisation drive announced in September 2022 provoked a mad dash for the border among many Russians. / Marcel Crozet / ILO
By Nizom Khodjayev in Almaty September 9, 2023

By some accounts, towards half a million Russians flooded across Russia’s long border with Kazakhstan roughly a year ago when Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilisation to add soldiers to the war effort in Ukraine. So where are they now? How many stayed, how many moved on to third countries and how many returned to Russia?

Good questions all, but the mish-mash of statistics released by the Kazakh authorities, combined with the dubious numbers offered by Russian diplomats, make answering them a hopeless task. Kazakh officials release sets of figures lacking clarity and out of step with the various realities painted by observers with something to say on the matter. And they are in no hurry to clear things up. The issue of Russian men of fighting age in Kazakhstan is something of a hot potato. Quite apart from Moscow frowning on any country that allows itself to be seen as relaxed about Russians escaping the draft, there are the frustrations of Kazakh citizens for whom the influx triggered by the mobilisation brought surges in consumer prices and rents as the newly arrived Russians sought to establish expatriate lives. For Kazakhstan’s Tokayev administration, the less said about all of this, the better.

Lacking the requisite statistics to pursue this article in the direction originally envisaged, your correspondent pushed the work on picking through statistical discrepancies to one side and went out to speak to some Russian expats in Almaty to try to obtain a useful picture of the situation as it stands. 

One issue that came up again and again was a Kazakh government resolution that became effective from late January. The resolution closed a loophole in the stay permitting process that essentially allowed foreign individuals unbroken indefinite stays in the country. The resolution, hitting not only Russians, but also citizens of other member nations of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), means that after the expiry of a stay permit, the permit holder is required to leave Kazakhstan for a minimum of 90 days before potentially qualifying for another stay.

One Russian citizen, who gave the name Andrey, indicated that Russian expats in Kazakhstan were managing to work around the situation, but said: “While the limits on permits themselves have not had a major effect on Russians staying here, they’ve definitely contributed to a general feeling that we might not be welcome here.”

Andrey said much of his Russian social circle in Kazakhstan dissolved as individuals opted to move on to other countries like Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Serbia, depending on the perceived opportunities.

‘Leaving via Russia, not to Russia’

Andrey also noted: “I suspect there might be an inconsistency in the statistics on people who only went back to Russia from Kazakhstan in order to leave for other countries, such as Georgia, Armenia or one of the East European nations. 

“Most of my friends have left for other countries, but I only know of one person who returned to Russia.”

Andrey then hit on another difficulty, conceding that his observations might be less than reliable since most of his friends and acquaintances are middle-class Russians who can afford to either stay in Kazakhstan or move on. 

“I can say for certain that most people who decided to stay or leave for other countries were people who were more or less financially well-off,” he said.

Many working-class Russians who attempted to make the move to Kazakhstan appear to have had rather worse luck.

Troubles adapting

“I work with a lot of Russians and quite a few of them could not bear the economic burden of having to move to a different country and thus failed to settle down,” another Russian, who preferred to remain anonymous, said. “Building a new life from scratch is not for everyone.” 

Another Russian citizen, who introduced himself as Gosha, told this publication: “When I arrived last September, I settled in a hostel full of approximately 60 Russians. Out of those 60, only five ended up staying in Almaty, half of them left for other countries and the rest went back to Russia.”

Mid-August brought claims from then Russian consul general in Almaty, Yevgeny Bobrov (during the writing of this article, Bobrov was fired from his position after making controversial claims that Kazakhstan was discriminating against the Russian language in schools), that a substantial number of Russian citizens who relocated to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city and commercial capital, in the months after the mobilisation have returned to Russia. Bobrov referred to an estimated 100,000 Russians who came to the city. He asserted that nearly half were by now back in Russia. Some others, he said, were by now in third countries.

Chairman of the Migration Committee of Kazakhstan's Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Ilyas Ispanov, last December muddied the picture on how many Russians fled the mobilisation by journeying to Kazakhstan. He talked of around 3mn Russian citizens arriving in the country since the beginning of 2022 and 837,000 crossing the border in the wake of Putin’s call for more citizens to be signed up by the armed forces. But it was not at all clear that Ispanov was not bundling together migration, tourism and business travel arrivals.

Whatever the actuality on Russians still determined to stay away from their homeland—and beyond the reach of military recruitment officials—by pursuing a life in Kazakhstan, with the war in Ukraine possibly set to become a long slog, we are entering a new phase in which both Russians and Ukrainian individuals intent on staying away from the conflict will have to move from temporary to more permanent existences.

At the same time, war fatigue in host nations is growing and sympathy for these individuals could wear thin in some quarters. This week, for instance, brought worrying stories of Ukrainian refugees becoming populist targets in Czechia. It’s clear that many of the Russians attempting to stay beyond the reach of the Putin war machine in Kazakhstan and elsewhere would dearly wish to return home. But for that, they need a home that they would want to return to.