Saturday, February 15, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Belarusian Migration to Russia a New Problem for Moscow-Mensk Ties

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – Relations between Moscow and the countries of Central Asia reflect efforts to find a balance among the desires of the Central Asian countries to receive the transfer payments from migrant workers in Russia, the increasing xenophobia among Russians toward such gastarbeiters, and Moscow’s interest in integrating these countries under itself.

            That balancing act has long been recognized and much discussed, but now the Russian government appears to be facing another “migrant” question, one with potentially more serious consequences for the future of its bilateral relations with the country Russia views as its closest and most integrated partner: Belarus.

            In an article in yesterday’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Anton Khodasevich who is a special correspondent for that Moscow newspaper in Mensk, says that Belarusian officials are very much alarmed by the brain drain out of their country into the Russian Federation and want to find a way to reverse it (

            Marianna Shchetkina, Belarusian labor minister, suggested this week that firms in her country must do more to stem the tide.  She cited official statistics showing that 5,000 to 7,000 Belarusians are leaving ever year to work abroad, most often to Russia, but conceded that these statistics do not include many who go independently, admitting there may be 100,000 Belarusians, many of them highly skilled, working in Russia.

            According to Khodasevich, Russia’s Central Bank reported that during the first three quarters of 2013, Belarusians working in the Russian Federation sent 700 million US dollars in transfer payments home. That is a small figure relative to the 5.4 billion Uzbek gastarbeiters sent back, but it is more than our times the figure Belarusians did in 2007 before the economic crisis.

            That figure in turn gives some idea of how much Belarusians are now earning in Russia – upwards of five billion US dollars – as well as how many are there, likely far more than even the estimates the Belarusian labor minister offers. And other data suggest that those who are leaving are among the country’s best and brightest.

            According to the labor ministry, Khodasevich continues, at present there are only 21,000 registered unemployed in Belarus but there are 50,500 job vacancies. The situation in that regard is especially bad from the point of view of the regime in Mensk. There, “the number of vacancies exceeds the number of unemployed by a factor of 11.”

            Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other officials are increasingly expressing concerns about the increasing gap between what that country’s economy needs and the number of qualified workers, something that makes the departure of any of the latter for employment in Russia a particular concern.

            Last year, even as Belarusians were leaving the country, Mensk admitted more than 18,000 workers from Ukraine, China, Turkey, Lithuania, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, “twice more than in 2012.”  But this program hasn’t worked out as well as Lukashenka hoped: there have been ethnic clashes between Belarusians and Tajiks and some of the latter have been sent home.

            Consequently, keeping Belarusians from leaving is a major concern, with Lukashenka himself even having suggested eliminating health and other benefits for those Belarusians who choose to work abroad.  Other steps, including establishing tighter control on the border with Russia, may be necessary, but those would have consequences for bilateral relations.

            Increasingly, officials in Mensk are coming to believe that the problem of outmigration reflects problems with Lukashenka’s system, problems that he may try to address by changing his relationship with Russia. But experts say, Khodasevich notes, that such steps won’t be enough.

            Instead, these experts say, “Belarus has been caught in traps of its own making: a labor market has not been formed, and the low effectiveness of the economy as a whole does not allow for the creation of competitive work places.” Expanding ties with Moscow’s Customs Union only make the situation worse by “opening the Russian labor market” to Belarusians.

            To the extent that is the case, Moscow’s efforts to integrate Russia and Belarus and ensure the stability of the two governments could have the unintended consequence of sparking new tensions between the two and causing Mensk to take measures to defend its interests even if those clash with Russian ones.

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