Putin afraid of causing labour shortages by pointing finger at Central Asia for terrorist attack, says analyst

Putin afraid of causing labour shortages by pointing finger at Central Asia for terrorist attack, says analyst
Kyrgyzstan-born Alisher Kasimov on March 26 became the eighth suspect remanded in custody in the investigation into the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack. / Russian state media, screenshot
By bne IntelliNews March 26, 2024

The Russian backlash against Central Asian guest workers in the wake of the Crocus City Hall terrorist atrocity threatens to drive out migrants and exacerbate Russia’s labour shortages, according to analysts.

Veteran Russia expert Mark Galeotti was prominent in delivering this warning in an interview with RFE/RL published on March 26.

Said Galeotti: “At the moment, Russia cannot afford to alienate and drive out these Central Asian workers—it needs them. It needs them to do the work that frankly, there aren't Russians to do, or that Russians don't want to do.

“[…] there is a labour crisis: Between the impact of the war and the need to have the defence factories running at full pelt, there is actually a shortage of labour. So, to actually exacerbate that by risking driving Central Asians out of the country—that would directly impact his [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine] war effort and also have diplomatic implications with his relationships with the Central Asian countries, which are feeling much, much less intimidated by Moscow now, and which Moscow needs because these are crucial routes for sanctions-busting smuggling into Russia of all kinds of spare parts, materials, microchips, whatever, that the war effort needs.”

Following the March 23 bloody terrorist attack that left at least 139 people dead at the concert hall on the edge of Moscow and the charging of four Tajik migrant workers with the crime, Putin, said Galeotti, had become “afraid, frankly, of pointing the finger at the Central Asians”.

He added: “Perhaps most importantly, there is actually a serious policy dilemma here. If he [Putin] says, ‘Yes, this was Islamic State, operating through the medium of Central Asian residents and guest workers,’ then, firstly, it aggravates racial tensions, which actually is a problematic issue in a multiethnic, multi-confessional state like the Russian Federation where 10 percent of the population is Muslim. But it also actually then begs the question: What are you going to do about it?

“The inevitable corollary would be some kind of crackdown on Central Asians, which as we know from past experience would be handled in a fairly thuggish and insensitive way.”

March 26 also saw top Russian officials stepping up their accusations that Ukrainian and Western intelligence operatives were somehow involved in facilitating the attack. No evidence backing such claims has been presented by Moscow. Kyiv and Western capitals have described the assertions as ludicrous.

Russian law enforcement has so far taken 11 people into custody in their investigation into the brutal mass killing.

Feelings against Central Asian migrants in Russia will have been heightened on March 26 when Kyrgyzstan-born Alisher Kasimov was remanded in custody on suspicions that he aided the four gunmen who conducted the attack, claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP, ISIS-K or Isil-K), which is based in the borderlands of Afghanistan.

Russian investigators, meanwhile, were in Tajikistan on March 26, questioning the families of the four men charged with carrying out the attack, three Tajik security sources told Reuters. The sources were reported as saying that Tajik security officials had brought the families to the capital Dushanbe from the towns of Vakhdat and Gissar, and from the Rudaki district.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was personally overseeing the investigation on the Tajik side, the sources said. Rahmon on March 25 called the terrorism a "shameful and terrible event" and urged Tajiks to protect their children from harmful influences.

On March 25, Kyrgyzstan called on its citizens not to travel to Russia except where strictly necessary, given the enormous pressure Central Asian migrant workers and visitors are facing following the attack.

Turkmenistan was reportedly exploring how to bring Turkmen students studying at Russian universities, who officials fear are exposed to a surge of anti-migrant feelings, home.

Given the substantial Russian need for Central Asian labour as outlined by analysts including Galeotti, Putin officials will not have enjoyed the latest data on remittances sent home from Russia by Uzbek migrant workers, as reported on March 25 by The Times of Central Asia.

It appears that fears of becoming trapped in a war zone, and perhaps of being forced into joining the ranks of the Russian armed forces in the military campaign in Ukraine, are causing many Uzbeks to leave, or stay away from Russia, in favour of looking for work in other countries, such as neighbouring Kazakhstan.

According to the Central Bank of Uzbekistan, in 2023 the volume of remittances sent to Uzbekistan from Russia decreased by 41.7% y/y to $8.58bn from $14.7bn in 2022.

In parallel, Uzbekistan has become the greatest recipient of remittances from Kazakhstan.