Are fleeing Russians welcome in Kazakhstan?
November 17, 2022
  • Vasily Burov 
    Advisor, Center for Applied Research TALAP (Astana)
Vasily Burov writes about the Russians who fled from the war and mobilization to Kazakhstan. How many can the country take in and what is the outlook for them? To what extent are the Kazakh authorities interested in attracting skilled labor from Russia?
Downtown Astana. Source: Wiki Commons
In the spring, when Russians began to emigrate en masse, Kazakhstan was clearly not a preferred destination. The few Russians who came to Almaty or Astana were almost invisible on the streets, blending in with the local Russians. The most active and intellectual part quickly integrated into local communities and business life.

Relocation to Kazakhstan: Spring-summer 2022

Most of the "spring wave" was businesspeople, consultants, analysts and financial-sector professionals. A notable event was the move of the founder of Freedom Finance, Timur Turlov, who quickly took Kazakh citizenship. Turlov is a well-known figure in international financial and has long had major business interests in Kazakhstan. In addition, there are examples in the IT sphere, the most prominent being the relocation of the large international taxi aggregator InDriver, originally founded in Yakutia, as well as the well-known mobile game developer Playrix.

The spring wave didn’t turn into a serious burden on the country's infrastructure. The Russian emigrants mostly chose Almaty, the former capital, located in the mountains and having the reputation from Soviet times of being a beautiful city. However, the city’s outdated infrastructure leaves much to be desired, while the supply of housing – especially high-quality and modern housing – is very limited. Still, at first Russians didn’t have any problems with finding places to live, and prices didn’t rise.
"Astana, a modern and rapidly growing city with a big supply of new housing and myriad rental opportunities, proved less attractive because of its harsh continental climate and because Russians knew less about it."
An important advantage of Kazakhstan is that Russians could come without a visa and even just with their internal passport. True, entry with a foreign passport is useful in various interactions with government agencies and banks, as a passport stamp serves as confirmation of legal entry.

Russian citizens can stay in Kazakhstan without special permission for 90 days, and since Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, it is easy for a Russian to get a job or open a business here and then receive a temporary residence permit for a year, which can then be extended indefinitely. The permit can be turned into the equivalent of a green card for a period of 10 years, though the foreign citizen must demonstrate his financial security. The amount is about $9,000 – much less than in many other countries.

Obtaining citizenship is more difficult, and dual citizenship is not allowed – to become a citizen of Kazakhstan, you must give up other passports. The legal framework for emigration, coupled with a relatively high level of economic and urban development (at least in the large cities) and the prevalence of the Russian language, should have made Kazakhstan the main destination for Russians who hastily left the country, especially those with fairly high qualifications. But Kazakhstan was chosen by only a few: people who had business or family connections to the country and people who understood the advantages of working in Kazakhstan – in particular, due to the so-called Astana International Financial Center, a special jurisdiction based on British law that offers concessions to financial-sector businesses, as well as the Astana Hub, which supports IT businesses.

Based on conversations with Russians who left for various countries during the spring wave, it can be said that they knew little about Kazakhstan – except for the vague idea that Central Asia as a whole is underdeveloped and extremely undemocratic. Unlike Kazakhstan, the South Caucasian countries and Turkey, where many Russians are used to spending holidays, are seen as comfortable and hospitable countries.

The only fresh memory of Kazakhstan was the January riots, which were fairly well publicized in Russia and added, on top of the vague idea of Kazakhstan being an undemocratic regime, a sense that the country was not a safe place.

Second wave

After the “partial mobilization” was announced in Russia, a stream of Russians seeking to dodge the draft poured into Kazakhstan. An immigration official estimated that between September 21 and October 19, 420,000 Russians entered Kazakhstan, with 310,000 leaving for other countries. By mid-November, according to various estimates, slightly less than 100,000 remained in Kazakhstan. Unlike the spring-summer emigrants, whose move more resembled a relocation – they had the opportunity to at least partially think through how to arrange their life in a new country – for those fleeing from the mobilization, the main thing was getting out of Russia, while the importance of other questions faded.

There was no choice for these Russians: tickets to countries where they could go were instantly sold out, and the few remaining tickets cost an arm and a leg. Thus, the move to Kazakhstan was determined by the long land border with road and rail links and the possibility of entry without a foreign passport.

However, the infrastructure of the border crossings wasn’t designed for such flows, and many had to queue for several days without any conveniences. In addition, the waiting was often accompanied by conflicts with local residents on both sides of the border, as for them, like freight carriers, the huge cluster of people and cars at the border was an unpleasant surprise.

Once in Kazakhstan, many Russians tried to stay for a while in small towns near the border like Aktobe, Kostanay, Uralsk and Petropavlovsk, among other smaller ones. The capacity of these places to shelter them was quickly exhausted: hotels and rented apartments were booked up.
"Unexpectedly, however, many local volunteers quickly turned up to help the arriving Russians."
Attempts to cash in on their problems were very rare, with the only frequent complaints being about taxi drivers trying to extort huge prices.

Perhaps the reason for the benevolent attitude toward the Russians was the fact that Kazakhstan for a long time was a place of exile and deportation, which promoted the development of skills of mutual assistance in society. In addition, Kazakhs’ experience of life under a life-long ruler contributes to greater understanding and sympathy for those who were forced to flee Russia.
Photo of pedestrian Panfilov Street, Almaty. Source: Wiki Commons
Is help from the Kazakh authorities forthcoming?

To date, there is no exact data on where exactly the emigrants settled in Kazakhstan. Most of them likely moved to the capitals of Almaty and Astana, putting a huge strain on the market for rental housing. Even in Astana, where there was a lot of housing for rent, all the available apartments were taken and prices almost doubled within a week.

In Almaty, the housing situation got even worse, which created a stir among local residents. Reports appeared that students were having a particularly hard time finding rental housing. It is Almaty where the country's largest universities are concentrated, and students began to complain that landlords were evicting them, preferring to rent out their apartments to more financially secure Russians.

However, the crisis was short-lived: two weeks after the September wave got underway, the housing situation normalized. The metropolises turned out capable of digesting the heavy flow of people, while many of those who fled Russia went elsewhere: some moved to other countries, some moved inside Kazakhstan and some returned to Russia when the main phase of the mobilization had been wrapped up. Since November, prices for rental apartments have started falling, and offers have reappeared in the housing market.

The Kazakh authorities, including President Tokayev, have publicly voiced their readiness to take in specialists and businesses from Russia. However, as is often the case in post-Soviet countries, real actions have fallen short of the official statements. Representatives of large companies can point to the official position to facilitate negotiations with local authorities – for example, over the allocation of land for the construction of a factory. However, most specialists and small companies can’t count on special terms or support.
"Still, even without special preferences, doing business in Kazakhstan is quite easy."
Of course, it would be advisable for the government to organize information, educational and adaptation programs for entrepreneurs from Russia, though so far such programs haven’t been launched.

The adaptation process is more vigorous in business, where there is an interest in bringing in "fresh blood" and hiring highly qualified specialists. Representatives of Kazakh business are happy to talk with new arrivals, arrange welcome events for them and help them find jobs. For example, at the end of November in Almaty, the local community is planning a forum on employment opportunities and business relocation for Russian emigrants. However, in the field of science and education – which could benefit from attracting highly qualified personnel from Russia – such examples are extremely rare.

It is still too early to say how successful the integration of Russians into the Kazakh economy will be. Most of those who fled from the mobilization haven’t yet recovered from the shock and weren’t actively looking for employment opportunities. Meanwhile, I personally know examples of highly qualified specialists who have already found jobs or started projects in partnership with locals.

The appearance of refugees from Russia comes against the backdrop of serious political events in Kazakhstan. The abovementioned unrest in January accelerated the transfer of power following the departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan since the mid-eighties. On the one hand, the most important outcome of Nazarbayev's rule is that today the country is at a much higher level of development than the average Russian imagines; on the other, Nazarbayev's rule provides another example of an authoritarian ruler who was effective at some point but who inevitably became a brake on the development of and a source of problems for the country in the long run.

Throughout the spring, amendments to the constitution aimed at democratizing political life and expanding participation in government were discussed in Kazakhstan. Though it can’t be said that the changes are radical, they are extremely important for consolidating the choice of the democratic path. At the end of November, an early presidential election will be held in Kazakhstan. There is no doubt that Tokayev will be affirmed; however, according to the updated constitution, the next term should be his last, which will inevitably heat up political life. After the presidential election, there will be a change of government, and a parliamentary election will be held in the spring under new rules, which should make the election the most competitive in Kazakhstan’s history.

Against this backdrop, issues related to the wave of Russian emigrants are necessarily fading for Kazakh society and the government, while official statements about the readiness to help Russians find jobs can be interpreted as a signal that the authorities won’t create obstacles for those who want to settle in Kazakhstan. Real opportunities depend on the initiative of business and civil society, along with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Russian emigrants.
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