Naturalized and mobilized


Sher Khashimov

September 22, 2023
In English
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Russia’s covert effort to conscript its new citizens sends a chill through migrant communities

One year ago, Vladimir Putin sent a shockwave through Russia by announcing a partial mobilization. For many Russians, this was when their country’s war against Ukraine finally hit home. Some 300,000 men were called up to fight in what was fast becoming Europe’s bloodiest land war in decades, and the public backlash, though muted after months of wartime repressions, was palpable. Since then, Russian officials have gone from denying intermittent rumors of a second mobilization to explicitly instructing pro-Kremlin media outlets not to fuel the latest buzz. But while the authorities may be hoping that mobilization fears will die out if left unaddressed, their ongoing efforts to drum up new soldiers by other means aren’t going unnoticed. In August, a string of police raids that seemed to primarily target newly naturalized Russian citizens — namely, draft-age Central Asian men who had allegedly neglected to complete their military registration — sent a chill through Russia’s migrant communities. And with another round of mobilization all but inevitable so long as Moscow continues waging war on Ukraine, some newcomers are beginning to see Russian citizenship as a liability. Journalist Sher Khashimov reports for The Beet.

“I have two sons in Russia. My eldest is an entrepreneur and my youngest is a student,” says Nargiz, a mother from Ayni in northwestern Tajikistan.

She sounds both proud and worried, and speaks quietly so as not to wake up her sleeping family members on a Sunday night.

The decision to let her children move to Russia didn’t come easily — and Nargiz struggles with it to this day. Her husband disappeared in Russia in the late 2000s after he went there in search of employment. For safety reasons, she asked The Beet to withhold her sons’ names.

“Hearing about the harassment and mistreatment they’ve faced for years has been so hard,” Nargiz says. “Then, after the start [of the war], they were telling me about the ads they saw around [promising an easier path to Russian citizenship] and I begged them not to do anything stupid.”

Nargiz pauses before adding, “I keep wondering if [letting them stay in Russia] was a bad decision and if my kids could disappear like their father.”

Nargiz and countless other parents across Central Asia have every reason to worry for their sons in Russia these days.

Since mid-August, police across Russia have rounded up hundreds of migrant workers from Central Asia in a wave of raids that appear to mainly target men who recently received Russian citizenship but didn’t complete their compulsory military registration. According to media reports, police have handed out military summonses on the spot and forcibly taken men to enlistment offices. There, they face the risk of joining the many migrants from Central Asia already working in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine or fighting on the frontlines.

“Policemen came in and told everyone to show their migration papers. Mine are all straight, but I was scared — it’s never pleasant [to deal with the Russian police],” says Bolot, a young labor migrant from Kyrgyzstan.

Bolot was working at the Kitaysky Market in Chelyabinsk, a city in west-central Russia, when the police raid occurred. “Several guys received military summons and I think three or maybe four were forcibly taken [to a military enlistment office],” he recalls.

“I saw in our group chats [for Central Asian labor migrants] that there were similar raids in other cities, people brought to conscription offices,” he adds.

Raids on establishments that employ labor migrants are a common occurrence in Russia. But while they usually attempt to showcase the government’s purported effectiveness in combating crime and illegal migration, this latest wave appears to be aimed at bolstering the country’s military in its war against Ukraine.

“The authorities justify these raids by saying that upon becoming citizens of the Russian Federation, migrants forget to register with the military. Apparently, this is how the security forces are helping new citizens to ‘fulfill their duties,’” says lawyer Valeria Vetoshkina from the legal group Department One. “This is another wave of repression aimed at replenishing [the military’s] reserves and growing the number of those who can be called up for the coming autumn conscription.”

‘Take them by force’

Recent statements from Russian officials seem to confirm Vetoshkina’s suspicions.

On August 28, lawmaker Mikhail Matveyev introduced a draft law that would deprive naturalized Russian citizens of their citizenship if they evade military mobilization or miss the deadline for compulsory military registration. “Foreigners who have received citizenship of the Russian Federation often avoid registering for military service, ignoring the fact that this citizenship bestows not only rights but also corresponding responsibilities,” Matveyev wrote in an explanatory note.

Earlier, the lawmaker suggested that people stripped of their acquired citizenship for draft dodging should be deported and that their family members should lose their Russian citizenship too — a draconian punishment that ultimately wasn’t included in the bill.

Russia’s constitution doesn’t distinguish between those born into citizenship and those who acquire it, and it directly prohibits denaturalization. Nevertheless, several Russian laws stipulate that acquired citizenship can be revoked as punishment for crimes such as terrorism, extremism, and, as a result of more recent wartime amendments, “discrediting the Russian military.”

Earlier, Valery Fadeyev, the head of Russia’s Human Rights Council, suggested that issuing passports to new citizens should be coupled with military registration. “How to make it happen is up to the relevant agencies, but my team is ready to assist in coming up with the proper process for synchronizing those two acts,” Fadeyev said.

Lawmaker Alexey Zhuravlev, who sits on the parliament’s defense committee, took things even further by suggesting that rather than trying to persuade newly-minted Russian citizens to enlist, the army should “take them by force.”

Russia’s migrant communities are already feeling the repercussions of this shift in official rhetoric.

“I got a text from an acquaintance, a fellow Tajik in St. Petersburg, saying that he was being forcibly taken to the military enlistment office,” says Muboris, a Moscow-based cook from Tajikistan. Missing his large family in Isfara, he’s grown accustomed to staying in touch with dozens of Tajik migrants across Russia, especially those from the north of Tajikistan. “[The acquaintance] said there was a raid and that he didn’t know what to do. Then he stopped responding to my texts.”

The two-day raid that targeted a large produce warehouse in the south of St. Petersburg in mid August turned up more than a hundred labor migrants with recently acquired Russian passports who were immediately taken for military registration. Similar raids occurred in BelgorodCheboksary and NovocheboksarskKurganKrasnodar, and Krasnoyarsk, with dozens of migrants forced to register for military service in each city.

“I haven’t heard of similar raids in Moscow yet, but I have citizenship and I’m worried. They could come to where I live,” says Muboris.

“I was taking my kids to kindergarten one morning when two men waiting near our apartment building approached, asked to see my documents, and told me to go to the local military enlistment office,” recalls Ahmad, a caterer from Uzbekistan.

Ahmad has been living in Russia for more than 15 years and even moved his family there, but he never applied for citizenship.

“Turns out there’s a Tajik with Russian citizenship who has the same name and birth year as me,” he continues. “I had to prove [to the enlistment officials] that it was a mistake and I wasn’t who they were looking for. They weren’t rude or anything, they just kept me there for some time before letting me go.”

Papers and problems

Russian citizenship is usually a prized asset for migrants from economically stagnant Central Asian countries. Unable to find gainful employment at home, Central Asians go to Russia in search of work and higher incomes. In recent years, remittances (mainly from Russia) have totaled the equivalent of a third of Tajikistan’s GDP and a quarter of Kyrgyzstan’s (although there’s been a significant drop in remittances during the second year of the full-scale war).

According to Russian Interior Ministry data, labor migration from Central Asia hit a five-year high in 2022, with as many as 978,000 Kyrgyz, 3.5 million Tajiks, and 5.8 million Uzbeks entering Russia intending to work. (Some people have likely been counted twice in these figures, as they reflect the total number of registered border crossings).

But while Russia remains a popular destination, migrants there have long faced issues ranging from wage theft and ruthless bureaucracy to daily abuse, discrimination, and even death threats from law enforcement and ordinary Russians alike.

“There’s no single experience of a Central Asian migrant, but there are many shared difficulties related to securing housing, employment, medical care, and collecting wages. There are also legal difficulties in terms of getting the right documents and keeping them all valid,” explains Caress Schenk, an associate professor of political science at Nazarbayev University who researches the politics of migration in Eurasia.

Russian citizenship can offer some protection against these daily challenges. Among other things, becoming a citizen means no longer having to collect the “myriad of interlinking documents migrants need to stay legal,” Schenk told The Beet. “However, citizenship does not solve problems related to discrimination, an experience migrants share with many other non-Slavic populations with Russian citizenship.”

According to official statistics, more than 174,000 Tajiks, 23,000 Kyrgyz, and 27,000 Uzbeks acquired Russian citizenship in 2022. Some even paid tens of thousands of rubles to middlemen who are known to forge documents and bribe officials on behalf of applicants. This makes the eventual passport holder, who may be unaware that their papers are fake, especially vulnerable to denaturalization threats.

Schenk says that some migrants she interviewed as part of her research now see Russian citizenship as a liability: “Many Kyrgyz who had acquired dual citizenship were immediately concerned that they would be called up to serve in the military — a concern that had likely never occurred to them when they originally gained a Russian passport.”

‘Voluntary’ service

Russia has a decades-long history of using foreign nationals in its conflicts abroad. The country codified the right of foreigners to sign contracts with the military back in 2003.

By 2008, the year Russia invaded Georgia, the number of foreigners — mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks — serving as professional soldiers in the Russian army had grown to 295. In 2015, the year Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war, Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing foreign contract soldiers to take part in Russian combat operations.

As Russia struggled to achieve meaningful gains in Ukraine in 2022, Putin signed another decree that offered fast-tracked citizenship to foreign fighters who signed on for at least a year of military service. Military recruiters then began targeting Central Asians serving out sentences in Russian prisons and tricking Central Asian migrants, as well as other foreign nationals, into joining up in exchange for expedited citizenship.

“Labor migrants are reaching out [for help] constantly due to the fact that they, non-citizens, are forced to sign contracts for ‘voluntary’ military service when applying for all sorts of documents, from work patents to residence permits,” underscores Valentina Chupik, a recognized human rights lawyer and the director of the Russia-focused migrant rights group Tong Jahoni.

“Labor migrants in Russia are a large and vulnerable population that’s always used for the country’s goals. And the Russian government has several ways of exploiting them as fodder for its military,” says Temur Umarov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That especially applies to those imprisoned in Russia who are being forcibly signed up to go to the battlefields in Ukraine.”

Hundreds of migrants from Central Asia have ended up working in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, according to investigations by Kloop and RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. According to BBC News Russian, at least 93 citizens of Central Asian countries (19 from Kyrgyzstan, 34 from Uzbekistan, and 40 from Tajikistan) have died fighting for Russia in Ukraine so far. However, because Russia carefully conceals not only its military losses but also the number and demographics of its forces fighting in Ukraine, the real death toll remains unknown.

“I think we should expect the scale of forcible enlistment of Central Asians who received Russian citizenship to get worse,” Umarov warns. “Russia’s resources are growing thin, the government probably won’t dare conduct a full mobilization, and there’s a need to avoid any sort of societal panic. So labor migrants — the least protected group in Russia — will bear the brunt of the war.”

Vetoshkina from Department One agrees. “I think an increase in the scale of the raids is quite possible because the number of migrants receiving Russian citizenship is only growing, which means that the potential number of soldiers is also growing,” she told The Beet.

Speaking to Nargiz, it’s clear that the last thing she wants is to see her sons conscripted into the Russian army. “My boys went to Russia to build a better life and I just want them to be safe,” she says. “Of course, they need to follow the laws of the country that took them in, but does it have to be my boys who go off to die?"

However, other sources who spoke to The Beet’s reporter didn’t question the legitimacy of the Russian authorities pressuring their fellow migrants to enlist. “Such is the current law, you must go serve [in the military] if you have citizenship,” says Bolot.

Ahmad was even more emphatic. “One must serve his country regardless of what he thinks about the [given] conflict,” he told The Beet. “If someone attacks Uzbekistan tomorrow, I’ll go fight for my motherland. Citizenship comes with certain responsibilities.”

But when asked why, after 15 years of living and working in Russia, he hasn’t applied for citizenship, Ahmad’s response was simple: “I just don’t want it.”