Russia promises citizenship to Central Asian natives willing to fight

October 24, 2022
For months, Central Asian nationals living in Russia have faced pressure to volunteer as soldiers in Russia’s war against Ukraine. A new law passed by the Duma aims to attract more foreign volunteers by offering fast-track Russian citizenship.
Migrant labor janitors rally in front of the Vostochnoye Degunino office in Moscow, expressing dissatisfaction with working conditions, April 2017. Source: Wiki Commons
In late September, Russia’s Duma passed a law making it easier for foreign nationals to obtain Russian citizenship if they sign up for military service. According to the new law, foreigners will no longer be required to hold a residence permit before applying for citizenship if they serve in the military for at least a year. In the past, foreigners were required to serve for at least three years to qualify for fast-track Russian citizenship.

The new law easing citizenship processing was passed by the Duma just a day before Vladimir Putin announced a “partial” mobilization, which followed months of military setbacks in Ukraine and failed efforts to attract enough new recruits for the war.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, civil rights advocates and media outlets have reported that Central Asian nationals residing in Russia have faced pressure to fight in Ukraine. Speaking to The Moscow Times back in March, migrant rights activist Valentina Chupik added that more than a dozen Central Asians had sought her legal advice after they had received phone calls from individuals claiming to represent immigration law firms. The callers said they could help citizens of Central Asian countries expedite the process of receiving Russian citizenship if they signed up for contract military service. Chupik said that authorities also targeted migrants at metro stations in Moscow, where recruiters try to get commuters to enlist in the “Volunteer Army of the Donetsk People’s Republic” with the promise that foreigners can then obtain Russian citizenship in just six months.

Millions of migrant workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan reside in Russia according to official government statistics. Many of them are driven by poor employment prospects in their home countries. Some seek permanent residence and citizenship to have more secure legal status in Russia, while many others live in a state of legal limbo without the correct documents.

Given the promises of fast-track citizenship and the considerable salary, many Central Asian nationals have signed up for military service. There are reports that some have died on the battlefield in Ukraine, such as a 38-year-old citizen of Tajikistan who was killed by a rocket attack in Kharkiv Region earlier in the summer.

Governments of Central Asian countries are warning their citizens living in Russia against taking part in the war. Back in August, Uzbekistan's government issued a statement reminding its citizens that participation in foreign wars is illegal after the leader of a Perm organization for Uzbeks, Jakhongir Dzhalolov, called on natives of Uzbekistan living in the region to volunteer as soldiers for Russia.

"Our children attend kindergartens, study in schools, colleges and universities. We live and work in Russia,” said Dzhalolov. “We are obligated to justify the bread we eat. I suggest forming a volunteer battalion and naming it in honor of the great Amir Timur. And supporting Russia's special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”

According to Uzbek law, military service on behalf of a foreign country is punishable by correctional labor of up to three years. Spiritual leaders in Uzbekistan also weighed in on the matter, issuing a fatwa (a legal ruling in Islamic law) that forbids Ubzek Muslims from taking part in conflicts abroad. It declares that Muslims of the country are allowed to take up arms only in defense of their homeland.

"Muslims are not permitted to unite with non-Muslims and fight against another community of non-Muslims," said the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan in a public statement.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where fighting in armed conflicts abroad is also illegal for citizens, issued similar statements. The Embassy of Kyrgyzstan in Russia noted that violating the laws against foreign combat can lead to up to 10 years in prison with the confiscation of property. In Tajikistan, the ban on fighting in armed conflicts abroad was introduced in 2015 to prevent citizens from fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, at the time officials in Tajikistan said that the law applied only to “illegal armed formations” and that entering a contract for service in the Russian armed forces wouldn’t entail punishment.

Although Kyrgyzstan doesn’t officially recognize dual citizenship, in practice many migrants in Russia may have passports from both countries and are therefore still subject to Kyrgz law.

Following the statements by Central Asian governments, Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights announced an initiative to make military service mandatory for natives of Central Asian countries who have had Russian citizenship for less than 10 years. Kirill Kabanov, a member of the council, described it as an “adequate response" to the ban by the authorities of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on their citizens volunteering in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

"Refusal to perform military duties should entail the deprivation of Russian citizenship not only for the military conscript, but also for members of his family," said Kabanov.

Back in 2013, Russian law was amended to allow young people who obtained Russian citizenship to serve in the armed forces even if they had served in the military of their native countries. Yet the coercive recruitment of foreign nationals extends beyond Russia’s borders.

In July, independent Kyrgyz media reported that the notorious Russian private military company Wagner was recruiting citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to fight in Ukraine. Journalists found a misleading advertising campaign for private security guards on several Kyrgyz and Uzbek news channels and a job-seeking Instagram account. When job recruiters affiliated with the advertisements were contacted, instead of the advertised security guard positions they offered work “performing tasks in the special operation zone in Ukraine” for 240,000 RUB per month.

As the Central Asia scholars Aizada Arystanbek and Caress Schenk wrote for PONARS in September, the war in Ukraine has upended many of the routines and assumptions on which migrants of Central Asian countries living in Russia rely. Over the years, migrants have become used to precarity and developed strategies to reduce the risk of being in a visible and racialized position within society and the labor market.

Coercive military recruitment practices are forcing citizens of Central Asian countries living in Russia to make adjustments to their lifestyles, and some are returning home out of concern for their own safety. At the same time, Western sanctions against Russia are making the economy and work opportunities less predictable. These changes are leading to major economically disruptive shifts in migration patterns in the region.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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