Russian dissenters flock to Kazakhstan to escape Putin’s war

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Almaty, Kazakhstan
CNN

Vadim says he fell into depression last month after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military plan to send hundreds of thousands of conscripts to fight in Ukraine.

“I was silent,” said the 28-year-old engineer, explaining that he had simply stopped talking while he was working. “I was angry and scared.”

When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, Vadim says he took to the streets of Moscow to protest – but Putin’s September 21 order to recruit at least 300,000 men to fight looked like to a point of no return.

“We don’t want this war,” Vadim said. “We cannot change something in our country, although we have tried.”

He decided he only had one option left. Several days after Putin’s draft order, he bade a tearful farewell to his grandmother and left his Moscow home – potentially forever.

Vadim and his friend Alexei traveled as fast as they could to the border between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where they waited in line for three days to cross.

“We fled Russia because we want to live,” says Alexei. “We are afraid of being sent to Ukraine.”

The two men asked not to be identified, in order to protect their relatives who remained in Russia.

Last week in Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan, they lined up with more than 150 other newly arrived Russians outside a government registration center – part of an exodus of dodgers.

Russian arrivals line up at a registration center in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

More than 200,000 Russians flocked to Kazakhstan after Putin’s announcement of conscription, according to the Kazakh government.

And it’s not hard to spot the new Russian arrivals at Almaty’s main train station. Every hour, it seems, young Slavic men exit the train with backpacks, looking slightly dazed as they check their phones for directions.

They come from cities across Russia: Yaroslavl, Togliati, St. Petersburg, Kazan. When asked why they left, they all answer the same thing: mobilization.

“It’s not something I want to be involved in,” says Sergei, a 30-year-old computer programmer. He sat on a bench outside the station with his wife, Irina. The couple, holding backpacks and rolling up sleeping mats, said they hoped to visit Turkey and hopefully apply for Schengen visas for Europe.

Sergei and his wife, Irina, outside the Almaty train station in Kazakhstan.

Most of the new Russian exiles spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.

Giorgi, a writer in his 30s from Yekaterinburg, says he fled to Kazakhstan last week after suffering panic attacks at the thought he might be drawn into the army.

“How can I take part in a war without wishing to win this war? ” he asks.

He is now trying to find an apartment in Almaty and hopes his wife and young son will be able to visit him in the winter.

Faced with the challenge of trying to make a living in a foreign city, Giorgi acknowledges that his hardships pale in comparison to Ukrainians, who were forced to flee in their millions after Russia attacked their towns and villages.

Unlike Ukrainians, who bravely fight for their homeland, Giorgi says Russian dissenters like him can be considered both “a refugee and an aggressor” because of their citizenship.

“I didn’t support his war, I never did,” says Giorgi. “But somehow I’m still tied to the state because of my passport.”

Giorgi, a writer in his thirties from Yekaterinburg in Russia, left his wife and young child to settle in a new life in Almaty.

The new Russian exiles are technically not refugees, in part because the Russian government is still not officially at war with Ukraine. According to the Kremlin, Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” against its Ukrainian neighbor.

Russian citizens can currently enter Kazakhstan for short periods with their national identity cards – and the president of the Central Asian country has urged his compatriots to welcome new arrivals.

“Most of them are forced to leave because of the desperate situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety,” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in late September.

An informal grassroots effort has sprung up across Kazakhstan to temporarily help feed and house Russians.

“They are running, they are scared,” says Ekaterina Korotkaya, an Almaty-based journalist who helped coordinate aid to newly arrived Russians.

Almira Orlova, an Almaty-based nutritionist, says she helped find accommodation for at least 26 Russians.

“They would arrive at my apartment, stay for a while, then stay at my friends’ apartments,” she says.

But she points out that she didn’t receive the same hospitality when she moved with her Russian husband to Moscow several years ago.

Then the Russian landlords repeatedly refused to rent her apartments because she was “Asian”, she said.

“When I told them I was Kazakh, they said ‘I’m sorry, I really can’t.’ And we couldn’t find an apartment for two months,” says Orlova.

“Central Asian citizens who have traveled to Russia for the purpose of labor migration face severe discrimination in Russia,” said Kadyr Toktogulov, former Kyrgyzstan ambassador to the United States and Canada.

The former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan has also seen significant “reverse migration” of Russians fleeing conscription.

“I don’t think Russians coming to Central Asia and fleeing conscription will encounter the same kind of problems or face the kind of discrimination that citizens of Central Asian republics have faced for years in Russia,” Toktogulov says.

Toktogulov says his own family recently rented an apartment in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, to a newly arrived Russian.

Property experts say the flood of Russian exiles has already sent rents skyrocketing in Almaty, the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and other cities in the region.

The impact is also being felt in commercial real estate, as many Russians seek to work remotely.

“It’s not just individuals who come, the big [Russian] businesses and businesses, they are moving their businesses to Kazakhstan,” says Madina Abilpanova, managing partner of DM Associates, an Almaty-based real estate company.

Madina Abilpanova, managing partner at DM Associates in Almaty.

She says Russian companies have approached her, seeking to relocate hundreds of their employees in a bid to protect them from military conscription.

“They are ready to move immediately, to pay what we want, but we don’t have places,” says Abilpanova.

She speaks to CNN at City Hub, a coworking space in central Almaty, where offices are filled with young Russians working silently on their laptops.

Russian newcomers work in a coworking space in Almaty.

Abilpanova says all of these clients had arrived in Kazakhstan within the past two weeks. As she spoke, another young Russian man carrying a giant backpack came through the door. The traders had to refuse it because there was no room.

“It’s something like a tsunami for us,” says Abilpanova. “Every day they come like this.”

Vadim, the Moscow engineer who recently arrived in Kazakhstan, says his company is sponsoring him and 15 other employees to transfer to the Almaty office.

“My boss is against the [Russian] government,” says Vadim.

Unlike many other Russians who suddenly fled into exile, Vadim can count on a salary for now.

But he doesn’t know when – or if – he will ever see his grandmother in Moscow.

“I really hope to see her again,” Vadim said, his eyes filling with tears.

“But I don’t know how long he has left. I hope to be able to come back one day at least to bury him.

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