Tricks, Threats, Tragedy: Central Asian Migrants Targeted In Russian Military Mobilization

October 18, 2022 16:43 GMT


ALMATY -- During a firearms session at a Russian training base, two soldiers opened fire on other troops who had volunteered to fight in Moscow's war in Ukraine.

The October 15 incident, which left the two attackers and at least 11 Russian men dead, came weeks after the Kremlin ordered a military mobilization in reaction to a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.

One of the attackers was 24-year-old Tajik national Ehson Aminzoda, his relatives told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. Aminzoda's brother, Firuz, said his sibling was "not a terrorist," describing him as "an ordinary migrant" who had been working for the past seven months at a Moscow restaurant.

While much about the bloody incident in the Russian city of Belgorod remains unknown, what is clear is the perils posed by the mobilization drive to the millions of Central Asian migrants who work in Russia.

Human rights defenders say they have been inundated with pleas for help from thousands of migrants who have mistakenly enrolled in the Russian Army or been pressured to do so.

Valentina Chupik, the director of Tong Jahoni, a Russia-focused human rights organization, said that up to one-third of the more than 500 appeals she receives from migrants each day are related to bad faith recruitment. That is despite Russian officials claiming that mobilization is nearing an end.

They include cases where migrants have been asked at Moscow's Sakharovo migration center to sign a 40-page document that includes military service papers. Other cases involve Central Asians who do not have Russian citizenship or residency permits being issued draft papers.

"In Russia, anything goes now," Chupik told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "[There are instances] where [migrants] are detained on the street by the police or the national guard, beaten, [given] electric shocks to their genitals, and told to sign up for the army. Of course, they sign up."

Other problems regularly faced by migrants -- from extortion to bureaucratic red tape -- have been "exacerbated by the war," Chupik added.

It is unclear how many citizens or dual nationals from Central Asia have been drafted to the Russian military since the mobilization was announced.

Captive Audiences

On September 20, a day before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization, the State Duma passed legal amendments offering foreign nationals a "simplified" fast track to Russian citizenship in return for a year of military service.

In the following weeks, migrants at the Sakharovo center were handed leaflets promising wages of more than $3,000 per month to serve in the Russian Army, even as their own governments warned of lengthy prison terms for nationals joining up to fight in foreign wars.

Recruiters, including from the Kremlin-connected military contractor Vagner, have not wasted time in targeting groups over which the Russian state has even more leverage: detainees and convicts.

Ruslan Vakhapov, an expert at the Moscow-based Russia Behind Bars NGO, told RFE/RL that they have received numerous reports of military recruiters visiting a detention center in the southwestern Russian city of Stavropol in attempts to draft Central Asian nationals who were detained for allegedly violating Russian immigration laws.

"These are people who have managed to buy tickets to return to their homeland, but the military men that turned up to the center are preventing them from leaving. They are kindly informing them of the benefits of joining the armed forces," Vakhapov said.

Central Asian nationals in Russian jails have reported rougher treatment, Vakhapov said.

The mother of an Uzbek citizen incarcerated in the same prison camp as Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in Russia's Vladimir region contacted Russia Behind Bars after her son sent her a letter that included a codeword the pair had agreed upon in the event of him facing extreme danger.

The woman believed her son had been forced into agreeing to join the army through violence and intimidation by prisoners known as "goats" or "activists" in Russia's inmate hierarchy due to their close cooperation with penitentiary chiefs.

Vakhapov said the intervention of the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow, which believed he had been coerced into signing the draft papers, was crucial to sparing the man from mobilization.

"After they interfered, the next day he was moved from the section of the prison for inmates ready to be sent [to military service] to the general section. He was allowed to return to his prison work," Vakhapov said.

Recruitment Threats Remain

Chupik told RFE/RL that complaints relating to military recruitment had fallen to around a quarter from their high in late September as migrants "wise up."

Tong Jahoni helped several hundred Central Asians with dual nationality flee Russia in the days immediately after Putin declared the mobilization. The announcement also led to tens of thousands of Russian men fleeing the country to avoid the draft.

Not all migrants took the cue, however.

Earlier this month, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on the case of a Kyrgyz dual national who was detained in his Moscow apartment and sent to a military enlistment office despite chronic health problems that forced him to have an operation on his kidneys several years ago.The 36-year-old, whose name was changed to "Esen" at his request, fainted at the office where he spent several hours without food and water. He was taken to hospital where medics provided him with a document confirming his kidney problems.

But military officials, after confiscating his Russian passport, insisted he was fit to fight and warned a warrant for his arrest would be issued if he failed to report for duty.

Esen and his wife fled their apartment. They are now in hiding as they try to get his Kyrgyz passport sent from Kyrgyzstan so that he can attempt to leave Russia, Esen's wife told the Kyrgyz Service.

On October 14, Putin said the mobilization would be over by the end of the month, adding the military had drafted 220,000 men over the first three weeks. Days later, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the mobilization was over in the capital and suggested there would be no repercussions for those who did not respond to draft notices.

But Chupik said migrants, with or without Russian passports, will "continue to be forced into ‘volunteering' to fight as long as there is a need for cannon fodder," in Russia's war in Ukraine, she said.

"Nobody has called an end to contractual recruitment," she added.