Who benefits from the Great Game in Central Asia

Russian daily Gazeta.ru published an op-ed by Vladimir Milov, president of the Russian political party „Democratic Choice“, in which he criticizes the Russian government’s liberal policy towards immigration from Central Asia. According to Milov, regardless of individual politicians calling for the introduction of a visa regime between Russia and the Central Asian countries, the Russian Government continues with its loose immigration policy towards these countries. Russia’s generous relationship towards Central Asia is founded on two premises: first, Russia already invested too much political capital into the idea of economic integration with Central Asia; second, it is believed that the Russian economy would suffer if the country decided to cut the immigration of cheap labor force from the Central Asian countries.

However, Milov argues that such immigration actually hurts the Russian economy as it turns the balance of payments in favor of central Asian countries. Money transfers from the immigrants working in Russia to their home countries are higher than the Russian exports to those respective countries – for example, private money transfers from Russia to Uzbekistan in 2011 amounted to USD 4.3 billion, while Russia exported USD 2.3 billion of goods to the same country. In Tajikistan, private transfers from Russia constitute 47 percent of its GDP. Similar relationship is observed between Russia and other Central Asian countries, which seems to support Milov’s argument.  

Milov goes on to state that the political and economic orientation towards Central Asia makes no sense for Russia. Russian exports to Central Asia (just below USD 20 billion in 2012) represent only 3.7 percent of the total Russian exports (USD 525 billion), and it is hard to believe that these countries will become top export markets for Russia in the near future, as the average monthly salaries in the region range from USD 100 in Tajikistan to USD 500 in Uzbekistan. The idea of building a bridge between Europe and the Pacific region through Central Asia is redundant, as Russia has direct access to the Pacific and shares almost eight thousand kilometers of border with China and Mongolia.

Furthermore, Milov argues that by indirectly subsidizing the economies of Central Asian countries through loose immigration and work requirements for their citizens, Russia supports autocratic and corrupt regimes that are doing very little to enhance the standard of living in their respective countries. The only thing Russia gets in return for its loose immigration policy is their dubious political loyalty, which could turn out to be of little worth should these regimes be overthrown. Milov is also concerned about the appearance of radical Islamist movements in some Central Asian countries. Besides, Milov claims that Russia is losing the battle for economic and political influence in Central Asia to China, which is making the countries in the region financially dependent by providing them with substantial loans. Thus, Milov argues, while Russia provides open borders and geopolitical subsidies, it is China that commands economic influence and enjoys access to resources in Central Asia.

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