Destabilization of human security in wider Europe and Central Asia

As a result of Russian attempt to change the borders in Europe, we witness the biggest flow of refugees since the WWII. The UN Secratary General has launched a 1.7 billion USD appeal to provide emergency assistance to Ukraine. Already today, March 2, almost 680 000 persons have fled Ukraine since the beginning of Russia´s invasion. The UNCHR is working with Ukraine´s neighboring countries and appealing to them to let refugess cross their borders freely. However, the flow of people has made the journey for many an arduous and hazardous one. We hear of eyewitness reports on families having to split to make it across the border and the rule of the strongest at borders. This indicates that the EU civilian crisis management should coordinate assistance in border crossing procedures in war times.

The current flow of refugees has created a very different political response from the 2015 situation when the Russian government was suspected of benefiting from the flow of people to European countries. Yet, if the war continues for a longer period, the question arises of integration of large Ukrainian communities into their temporary or even permanent new places of residence. This alone will make it difficult for European nations to gradually put the Ukrainian war in the background as it happened after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Ukrainians fleeing conflict. © Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Current attention is focused on the immediate and long-term economic effects on both sides of the EU-Russia border. But the war will also permanently shift the political landscape in Russia relations and sever practical connections between communities and organizations. This three decades long cross-border collaboration has been important for wider European security. Collaboration in various areas related to human security will be negatively affected – if not halted altogether. What remains to be seen is the effect on border security and international police cooperation, such as Russia’s membership in Interpol, for instance.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine will have lasting negative impact on stability and security in Central Asia as well. All five Central Asian republics, to different degrees, are dependent on Russia in almost all spheres of life.

First of all, Russia is by far the largest (or second largest after China) trade partner of Central Asian countries. The presence of Russian business in the region is significant. While experts believe that the Western sanctions imposed on Russia will have start to have a devastating effect in the mid to long run, the decline of Russian economy will eventually negatively affect development in Central Asia. Landlocked in the middle of Asia and neighbouring the war-torn Afghanistan in the south, the five countries of the region export the vast majority of their goods, although not in large quantity, through the Russian territory. As the most of transport routes between Russia and the rest of Europe will also be closed, it is not yet clear how Central Asian countries can diversify their export routes. We will also witness a hampered economic growth, inflation and the decline in living standards.

However, the most immediate effect of the Russian invasion will be felt through Central Asian labour migration to Russia. There are more than 2 million migrant workers from Uzbekistan, close to 1.6 million from Tajikistan and above 600,000 from Kyrgyzstan in Russia. While for Uzbekistan with a population of 35 million the number of migrant workers may not be comparably high, one in six citizens from nine-million Tajikistan work in Russia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are highly dependent on remittances; earnings sent by Kyrgyz and Tajik migrant workers home constitute almost third of the gross domestic product of their respective countries. The sanctions have already tumbled the Russian ruble, cutting the value of savings and remittances of migrant workers. If the value of ruble continues to fall, there may be no reason for migrants to remain in Russia.

Moscow’s Kazansky station, one of entry points into Moscow’s labour market     © Sherzod Eraliev

In the past, when Russian economy faced crises, like during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 or following the western imposed sanctions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 or even the recent pandemic, many migrant workers had to return home for the short period. Nevertheless, for lack of any job perspectives in their home countries, migrants gradually returned to Russia. Whether Russia will remain a hub for Central Asian migrant workers depends a lot on the resilience and resistance of Russian economy against the sanctions. As the confrontation between the West and Russia is quickly spiraling into the level of no return, it seems that the sanctions will hurt the Russian economy greatly if not in the coming months, then in the coming years. This, in turn, may make working in Russia unreasonable for migrant workers, thus blocking the pipeline of remittances greatly needed for Central Asian economies. A decline in remittances and a return of unemployed people in large numbers are likely to lead to economic and social pressures in Central Asian countries.

At the same time, Central Asian governments fear of the growing pressure by Moscow. So far, the governments have expressed cautiously neutral voices calling the both Russian and Ukrainian sides to put an end to the military conflict (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), sympathized with Russian actions (Kyrgyzstan) or remained silent (Tajikistan and Turkmenistan). Criticizing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine will be harder and harder for Central Asian capitals as they are bound with Russia through politico-economic (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and military (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) blocks. As Russia is getting isolated in international arena, remaining neutral for the five countries will be difficult and Moscow’s pressure on the region will only grow.

By Anna-Liisa Heusala and Sherzod Eraliev

Fieldwork notes from Istanbul


Sherzod Eraliev, Academy of Finland Post-doctoral Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, shares his fieldwork experience in Istanbul, Turkey

Although the Covid-19 pandemic is still ongoing and some countries are already facing the fifth wave of the pandemic, restrictions in international travels have become less strict allowing the possibility of fieldworks for researchers. However, Turkey has since last year been one of the few countries to allow foreigners, albeit with certain restrictions, to visit the country in an attempt to compensate the losses to its tourism sector. And my first visit to Turkey for fieldwork was in early August of 2020, when there were still a lot of mobility restrictions induced by the pandemic. Back then, I was accompanying Rustamjon Urinboyev, who had already started his fieldwork in early 2019. We decided to conduct a fieldwork in the middle of the pandemic to find out the immediate effects of the pandemic on migrants, the most vulnerable population group during such crises.

This last fieldwork was the first one since I started my individual research project funded by the Academy of Finland. Started in September 2021, this project investigates the mutually transforming interactions between multiple actors and institutions on different levels and chains of migration governance in a comparative perspective in Russia and Turkey. I use Central Asian migrant workers in these countries as my case since they are the largest migrant groups in Russia and one of the largest and growing migrant groups in Turkey. Both Russia and Turkey share many similarities: they both have become large migration hubs in recent decades, share borders with the European Union, have become more and more autocratic in recent years, a large share of migrants is employed in informal sector, etc.

Kumkapi, an Uzbek café “Qo’qon” named after a city in Uzbekistan. Interestingly, most of Uzbek cafes in Kumkapi (or other parts of Istanbul) carry a name of a city or region in Uzbekistan, indicating hometown of migrant-entrepreneurs.

In Istanbul, my main fieldwork site is Kumkapi neighbourhood in the city’s central Fatih district. Historically one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Istanbul, in the last decade Kumpaki has become a hub for migrant workers from different parts of the world. However, in the past decade it has mostly become an “Uzbek mahalla” due to a large number of cafés and restaurants serving Uzbek food, numerous cargo companies that ship clothes to Uzbekistan, many clothing stores and stalls selling Uzbek fashions suitable in the area. Walking through the streets of Kumkapi, you can spot hundreds of Uzbek migrants. This is probably one of the most important differences with Moscow, the largest destination for Uzbek migrants in Russia. Unlike in Istanbul, there are no ethnic enclaves in Moscow, meaning migrant communities are dispersed with migrants living in different parts of the city, with the small exception of some industrial zones and fruits/vegetable markets with higher concentration of Central Asian migrants.

A stall selling “Uzbek goods”, mostly brought by shuttle-traders from Uzbekistan. A carton with a handwritten text in Cyrillic Uzbek on top centre of the photo advertises services of helping with green-card applications, the most desired dream of migrants to immigrate to the USA.

Uzbeks who live in other districts of Istanbul come to Kumkapi during the weekends in order to meet and socialize with their friends in Uzbek cafés. Therefore, many newly arrived migrants stay in shared apartments in Kumkapi and undergo their initial introduction and adaptation to the Turkish labor market. The emergence of an Uzbek mahalla in Kumkapi can be explained by its vicinity to the shopping areas of Laleli (frequented by a large number of shuttle traders from Uzbekistan), with its informal employment possibilities and the availability of cheap housing and accommodation in the quarter. Unlike Moscow, where migrants have to minimize their presence in public space to avoid frequent police checks, Uzbek migrants in Istanbul usually are not afraid to walk freely in streets notwithstanding the fact that the majority of them do not possess documents that give right to reside and/or work.

Ads in Turkish and Uzbek offering a job or accommodation in Istanbul.

In the conference that the Aleksanteri Institute organized in late October on migration issues, Anna-Liisa Heusala and Kaarina Aitamurto presented a paper “Authoritarian Context and Outsider Position in Fieldwork on Migration in Russia”, where the authors discussed, among others, the difficulties Western researchers may face in an authoritarian context, where not only authorities, but also research objects – migrants could perceive the work done by the researchers – that is, the data collection in the field as something that can cause trouble. Well, while it was relatively easier for me to establish contacts as a person sharing the same linguistic, identity, and cultural background and citizenship with migrants, it is never easy to gain trust of research informants. Uzbek migrants coming from an authoritarian context, who have heard or witnessed about their government’s persecution in foreign countries (especially during the previous president’s time), do not always trust other Uzbeks they don’t know in person. During my fieldwork trips to both Russia and Turkey I had to invest time and resources to gradually gain trust of migrants. Only after trusting you totally, are they eager to share their stories, grievances, and dreams as well as show their living and (if possible) working places.

Overall, this fieldwork proved to be a productive one in terms of data collection: interviews, observations and visual documentation.

2021 Aleksanteri Conference “Eurasia and Global Migration”

On October 27-29, 2021, the Aleksanteri Institute organized its annual multidisciplinary conference on “Eurasia and Global Migration”. Originally planned for October 2020, it had to be postponed to this year because of the restrictions induced by the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The event was held completely online on a platform Liveto (, a Finnish company that hosts online events.

Screenshot from the Opening ceremony of the conference

This year, the 20th Annual Aleksanteri Conference brought together scholars to explore dimensions of global migration to, from and within the Eurasian space and to discuss these transformations. The conference participants, with different backgrounds and approaches, discussed a broad range of topics pertaining to migration from both historical and contemporary perspectives. 

The key note speakers of the conference  included Franklin Obeng-Odoom (University of Helsinki, Finland), Caress Schenk (Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan), Ulf Brunnbauer (Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Germany),  Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester, UK), Marlene Laruelle (The George Washington University, USA) and Teivo Teivainen (University of Helsinki, Finland). 

All the key note presentations can be found in the Aleksanteri YouTube channel here. 

The online event brought together 263 participants from 39 countries, who explored migration and the agency of migrants in terms of social, political, cultural and historical processes and flows, which redefine the contours of national boundaries and affect societal development in both sending and receiving societies. The organizers had the luxury of putting together a  versatile program of high quality panels covering the topic.  For more inclusive conference attendance, the online version proved to be a good choice. The conference program is still available at the Institute website, please click here.

The conference was opened by the Minister of Interior, Dr. Maria Ohisalo, who emphasized the political topicality of the conference theme and encouraged researchers to take into account environmental issues linked to migration. During the conference, the Finnish Ministry of Interior, the government agency responsible for regulating migration issues in the country, hosted a workshop on the development of Finland´s migration policy and a round-table titled “Future Perspectives on Migration” with speakers from the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs and the University of Eastern Finland. The online conference also featured a series of podcasts – interviews with scholars on the issues related to different aspects of migration and its consequences for Eurasian development from societal, political, cultural and other perspectives. This is a link to the podcast episodes on our website, available with transcripts.

Although the organization of a three day international conference was a major undertaking for the Organizing committee, the end result was a success and worthy of the 20th annual conference. We had wonderful student assistants who worked tirelessly in the Aleksanteri Institute´s premises taking care of the panels.  Participants reacted positively to the conference platform and enjoyed the high level presentations. The original aim of the conference was to demonstrate the relevance of our region of interest (post-Soviet space) for the study of global processes and flows. But the conference also  showed the vast number of researchers who work on migration related issues either in cultural, historical, political or societal topics. We are encouraged to build this network also in the future!

By Sherzod Eraliev