Russia’s ruble crisis is posing a major threat to nations along its southern fringe, whose economies rely heavily on billions of US dollars shipped home every year by their own citizens working within Russia.
The 50 percent drop in the ruble has not only decimated the value of remittances sent home by workers from the Caucasus and central Asia, but is discouraging migrants from staying in Russia to earn a salary for themselves and their families. According to data projections by the Guardian, based on World Bank figures, nine nations that rely heavily on cash sent home from Russia for their economic buoyancy could collectively lose more than US$10 billion this year because of the weak Russian currency.
“I’ve sacrificed starting a family, I’ve sacrificed any kind of normal life to work here, and now I’m only able to send home a few hundred [US] dollars a month,” said Aziz, who works at a car repair plant in northern Moscow.
His regular job and some moonlighting as a cab driver has typically earned him about US$900 per month to send home to his parents and sisters, who live in the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan. Now he is lucky to earn half that sum.
“I’m starting to think there is not much point in staying. Life is miserable enough here anyway, the only reason to be here was for the money. I think it could be time to go home,” he said.
Aziz is not the only person thinking about leaving. As the economic situation in Russia deteriorates, authorities have also introduced a new harsher system for obtaining work permits for migrant workers. Currently, there are millions of citizens of former Soviet nations working illegally in Russia.
“So far people are not leaving en masse, mainly because they are worried they will not be able to come back,” said Gavkhar Dzhurayeva, who runs an organization offering free legal support to migrant workers. “However, lots of people are talking about it, if things don’t improve.”
The tendency could be problematic for Russia too, which is expected to rely on immigrant labor for the formidable building projects as the nation prepares to host the 2018 World Cup.
According to the World Bank , 21 percent of Armenia’s economy, 12 percent of Georgia’s, 31.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s, 25 percent of Moldova’s, 42 percent of Tajikistan’s, 5.5 percent of Ukraine’s, 4.5 percent of Lithuania’s, 2.5 percent of Azerbaijan’s and 12 percent of Uzbekistan’s, rely on remittances.
These are some of the highest rates in the world. Of the five nations globally whose GDP is most reliant on these payments, three are former Soviet republics. In most of these cases money from immigrants in Russia comprises a significant portion of these inflows. About 40 percent of remittances to Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are from Russia, rising to 79 percent for Kyrgyzstan.
Already, the sharp decline in the ruble has forced currency devaluations in Turkmenistan this month, and speculation that Kazakhstan’s tenge might need a further devaluation against the US dollar after a 19 percent move in February last year.
The economies of the region are strongly tied together, with Belarus sending more than half of its exports to Russia, and the nascent Eurasian Economic Union supposedly tying together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as a single bloc. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have also joined. In addition to the plummeting ruble, these nations will also have to deal with a potentially huge shortfall in remittances, which cannot but have an effect on GDP.
In October last year, the World Bank estimated that remittances for the year to the nine nations mentioned earlier would have totaled US$33.3 billion by the end of last year. Of this figure, about US$19 billion would have been outflows from Russia.
At the time of the World Bank estimate, US$1 exchanged for 40 rubles. By the end of the year, the currency had lost about 50 percent of its value. If that new rate holds steady throughout this year — and remittances remain otherwise unchanged — their value would drop precipitously, to just US$7.6 billion.
The figures given are the official numbers, sent via bank transfers. The real amounts, which include wads of US dollars brought home in person by migrants or given to friends to carry, are likely to be much higher.
A weak ruble over a sustained period of time would have a minimal impact in the Baltics, but in several other nations the effects could be felt far more. In those nations where GDP relies so heavily on migrants sending money back home, a prolonged currency crisis throughout this year would, all other factors remaining the same, potentially even lead to double-digit economic contraction.
Most vulnerable are the central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where the ailing economies and dictatorial political systems are in large part propped up by the money from its nationals working in Russia.
Aging Uzbek President Islam Karimov said in 2013 that migrant workers who went to Russia were “lazy” and should find a job at home, but in reality, there is little work in Uzbekistan, where US$150 per month is considered a good salary and many towns simply have no opportunity for work at all. Regional experts say that if the money flow from migrant laborers dries up, rulers like Karimov would be in serious trouble.
“If oil continues falling and the ruble continues falling, then migrants will begin to return home,” said Daniil Kislov, who runs fergana.ru, a central Asia news portal. “There are 2.4 million Uzbek migrants in Russia, and those are just the official figures. These people and their families are all surviving because of money made in Russia. Essentially Russia has saved Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from revolution, and if all these people return it will cause a social explosion. Not today, but maybe in a year, or two, or five.”
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