As Russians escaping a partial military mobilization in their homeland drank their morning coffee in a cinema that opened its doors for them in northwestern Kazakhstan, Central Asia was waking up to yet more fallout from Moscow’s bloody war in Ukraine. Almost a week into the drive for soldiers that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 in response to a tide-shifting Ukrainian counteroffensive, sightings of Russians wandering the streets of cities throughout the region with backpacks and lost expressions have become commonplace.
So, too, have lengthening lines at the state borders that Russian citizens can still cross without visas, as reports that Moscow may soon move to close off the exits -- at least to men of fighting age -- deepen the panic.
For the moment, traditions of regional hospitality are holding up in Central Asian host countries that are now witnessing a second wave of Russian guests since the invasion began on February 24.
In Oral, the Kazakh city where a movie theater called Cinema Park provided shelter for around 200 Russians over the weekend, RFE/RL correspondents saw local residents dole out free bowls of pilaf, or plov, for Russians gathering at the city train station.
“We help them as we can. If we could do more, we would,” said Miras, a volunteer who told Russians to ignore negative online comments from Kazakhs about the arrival of their neighbors to the north.
“We’ll always accept you, always treat you with kindness,” he said.
But there is also plenty of anxiety among locals over fresh spikes in the costs of living in a region where inflation is already surging. Some have doubts about the dazed incomers, many of whom admit they know nothing about the countries they have arrived in.
On September 26, one man biked from the steppe Kazakh city of Karaganda to the capital Astana with a placard on his backpack calling on authorities to close the border with Russia.
“It is time to think about the future of our republic,” the activist, Askar Nurmaganov, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, citing the threat of rising prices, soaring rental rates, and competition for employment as the motives for his protest.
“Kazakhstan is not some courtyard passageway!”
Three days before Nurmaganov’s protest, two Kazakhs were briefly detained because of a demonstration at the airport in the largest city, Almaty.
One of the protesters, student Qaragoz Qasym, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that she “wanted to show what people in my country think about all of this.”
“There is no guarantee that those who're arriving here in droves now will not stab us in the back later,” Qasym said, in an apparent reference to the arrivals’ potential support for separatism in the multiethnic country.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union that borders Russia.
Like Georgia in the Caucasus, the country has seen kilometers-long lines of Russians in cars, on foot, and on scooters queuing to escape the mobilization.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 21 that only those with relevant combat and service experience would be mobilized and not conscripts and students.
But reports quickly emerged of the Kremlin casting a wider net, with ethnic minorities appearing to be targeted.
Kazakh authorities have moved to tamp down local fears about impacts on the job market, while acknowledging that flows of Russians -- both coming in and transiting back out -- were twice or three times last year’s levels in recent days.
Under Kazakh law, Russians can stay for up to 30 days without registration and a further 60 days afterward, but require a note from their home government to apply for the extended residence.
On September 26, Kazakhstan published a draft of changes to the laws that would prevent foreigners using internal -- rather than foreign passports -- from staying longer than 30 days.
The amendments drafted by the Interior Ministry are in a phase of public discussion until October 10.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said on September 27 that most of the Russians coming to his country "are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety." Speaking from Kazakhstan's Turkestan region, Toqaev added that "we will hold talks with the Russian side and will solve this problem in the interests of our country."
On To Tajikistan
But the great Russian exodus from the mobilization effort is visible across the region.
On September 25, an RFE/RL correspondent met two escapees, Igor and Arkady, at Coffee Moose, a trendy cafe on Dushanbe’s central Rudaki Avenue that was packed with customers.
The men, both in their 20s, said they abruptly left their hometown of Kaluga, some 150 kilometers southwest of Moscow, after Putin’s announcement.
“I don’t want to be sent to Ukraine, I don’t want to be killed or lose a limb there,” Igor said. “I am only 26.”
Arkady admitted the capital of impoverished Tajikistan was a “random choice” in his escape from Russia.
The two friends were “running out of options” as ticket prices skyrocketed overnight for all visa-free destinations with thousands of conscript-age Russian men thinking along the same lines.
“We just wanted to get out of Russia immediately. We were afraid the borders will be closed soon,” Arkady said. “We won’t return to Russia as long as Putin is in power,” he added, noting that Uzbekistan would be their next destination.
Along with eateries, hotels and short-term rentals, Central Asian cities are enjoying a postseason mobilization-linked boomtime.
Several hotels in Dushanbe appeared to be charging more than 50 percent their usual rates with rooms fully booked into the first week of October.
A woman named Orzu, who rents out a two-bedroom apartment in a Soviet-era building not far from the city’s famous Rohat teahouse, said her flat had never seen such high demand.
Orzu has “two Russians staying until the end of September and I am getting many more phone calls from other potential customers. Most of them are Russians,” she told RFE/RL.
Cold, Tired, Hungry
It is the same story in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and other cities in that country.
In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Gennady Voitenko, the owner of the Lavitor Hotel, told Current Time that he had been making repeated runs to the city’s airport to fetch his new “fallen-faced” clients.
Although cities in many of the former Soviet republics witnessed a major influx of Russians in the early weeks of Russia’s bloody war, the energy is somewhat different now, Voitenko said.
If in March the arrivals referred to in slang as “relocators” were “hipsters, IT people, from St. Petersburg, Moscow,” now they are “anybody with the opportunity,” Voitenko observed.
Back in Oral, a city of more than 250,000 people, space is at a premium.
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Onward trains and planes out of the city are booked up for the coming days, while taxi drivers are charging many times the usual 30,000 tenge ($62) fee to get to Aqtobe, the nearest Kazakh city with an airport, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.
The 2,650-kilometer cross-country drive to Almaty was reportedly being priced at a cool 1 million tenge ($2,070), almost three times as much as usual.
Rent for many one- and two-bedroom apartments, even on the outskirts of the city, has doubled during the last week.
Lukpan Akhmedyarov, an independent journalist, offered a free room in his home to a woman and her conscription-age son who does not have a foreign passport.
“The Russian refugees are everywhere,” Akhmedyarov said. “They talk of a 20-kilometer queue at the border. Twenty! And taxi drivers are still bringing them in.”
Dilara Mukhambetova, director of Cinema Park, told RFE/RL that her cinema had briefly closed for sanitary measures after hosting fleeing Russian citizens by night and screening films by day.
But Mukhambetova said the City Center Mall where the cinema is located was considering other ways of opening up its space.
“Some of [the Russians] said they had stood at the border for nearly two days. They were cold, tired, and hungry. Then the volunteers arrived with food and tea,” Mukhambetova recalled.
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