Labor migration was in the spotlight when a high-level delegation from Uzbekistan visited Russia on November 6-8. The delegation was headed by Senate Chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev, who following the death of Islam Karimov in 2016 unexpectedly found himself very briefly the most senior official in the country. The visit was the second high-level visit related to the migration issue for Uzbekistan. The first took place in April 2017 when Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two labor migration-related agreements in Moscow.
The recent delegation to Russia included Uzbekistan’s first deputy minister of employment and labor relations, Erkin Muhitdinov, who led migration-related discussions. When he met with Russian officials, his focus was on arrangements to set up the first multifunctional migration center of the Russian Federation in Uzbekistan. Additionally, he held negotiations on the reciprocity of work records and pension rights of migrants.
A multifunctional migration center is a semi-governmental institution to which a potential labor migrant goes to complete necessary procedures, such as knowledge tests, medical evaluations, and other procedures that allow applicants to receive an annual permit to work in Russia legally. The process can easily become an expensive and time-consuming quandary, with multiple traps; the center is supposed to address that problem.
If such a center becomes operational in Uzbekistan, while it will not dissolve the procedural hurdles it will simplify some of the bureaucratic steps and allow them to be taken while still in Uzbekistan. The opportunity to start the legal migration process in Uzbekistan will be a major relief for Russia’s largest labor migrant population. In the first nine months of 2018, more than 1.5 million Uzbek citizens entered Russia for the purpose of work. Tajikistan, the next largest supplier of labor migrants, sent just over half that amount, 790,116 people.
In addition to meeting with Russian officials, Muhitdinov met with migrants from Uzbekistan held in a special detention center for minor violations and awaiting deportation from Russia. He took interest in their conditions and extended support for the speedy resolution of their cases. For the first time, Muhitdinov, on behalf of official Uzbekistan, committed to take financial responsibility for returning the 170 migrants in the center he visited.
When Uzbekistan negotiates special arrangements for its migrants or any other economic matters, the process is usually far from easy. Russian officials want countries to sign onto the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which would alleviate some of the hurdles. Since Uzbekistan is trying to avoid pressure to join the Russian regional organization, it is left with the option of broaching negotiations on related matters delicately.
When the April 2017 agreement on organized employment, signed by Mirziyoyev and Putin, had to be approved by Russian lawmakers, it was done so grudgingly. Populist Russian lawmakers saw no need to allow Uzbek migrants in through a special government program when their own citizens were far from receiving such treatment in reverse. When the lawmakers eventually approved the agreement, they called it a geopolitical sacrifice.
The recent signing of the new Migration Policy Framework for 2019-2025 by Putin may play to Uzbekistan’s advantage. The exact implementation details of the policy are still in the works, but as it reads now, it looks to be more inviting to labor migrants. Russian lawmakers might become more cooperative in passing arrangements beneficial to countries outside Russia-led regional organization, such as Uzbekistan.
The government of Uzbekistan is increasingly playing an active role in supporting its labor migrants. Since the death of Karimov in 2016, for the first time in independent Uzbekistan, labor migrants have started to receive more than just negative attention from government officials. Uzbek officials negotiating special arrangements and offering financial support for their return are positive steps. For any other country these activities may seem normal, but for a country that until recently denied the existence of its own massive labor migrant population, these moves are sizeable strides. At the same time, the burden is on Uzbekistan to receive maximum benefits from Russia, which they have to play out delicately without succumbing to pressures to join Russia-led regional organization while reaping all possible benefits.