Russian draft dodgers pour into Kazakhstan to escape Putin’s war

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Almaty, Kazakhstan
CNN
 — 

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

“I was silent,” the 28-year-old engineer says, explaining that he simply stopped talking while at work. “I was angry and afraid.”

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 draft at least 300,000 men to fight felt like a point of no return.

“We don’t want this war,” Vadim says. “We can’t change something in our country, though we have tried.”

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

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

“We ran away from Russia because we want to live,” Alexei says. “We are afraid that we can be sent to Ukraine.”

Both men asked not to be identified, to protect loved ones left behind in Russia.

Last week, in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital Almaty, they stood in line with more than 150 other recently-arrived Russians outside a government registration center – part of an exodus of draft dodgers.

Russian arrivals queuing at a registration center in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

More than 200,000 Russians have streamed into Kazakhstan following Putin’s conscription announcement, according to the Kazakh government.

And it isn’t hard to spot the new Russian arrivals at the main railway station in Almaty. Every hour, it seems, young Slavic men emerge from the train wearing backpacks, looking slightly dazed while consulting their phones for directions.

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

“It’s not something I want to participate in,” says a 30-year old computer programmer named Sergei. He sat on a bench outside the train station with his wife, Irina. The couple, clutching backpacks and rolled up sleeping pads, said they hoped to travel on to Turkey and hopefully apply for Schengen visas to 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 late 30s from Ekaterinburg, says he fled to Kazakhstan last week after suffering panic attacks at the thought he could be dragged into the military.

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

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

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

Unlike Ukrainians, who fight bravely for their homeland, Giorgi says Russian draft dodgers like himself can be viewed as both “a refugee and an aggressor” by virtue of their citizenship.

“I did not support his war, I never did,” Giorgi says. “But somehow I’m still connected with the state because of my passport.”

Giorgi, a writer in his late 30s from Ekaterinburg in Russia, left his wife and young child to set up a new life in Almaty.

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

Russian citizens are currently able to enter Kazakhstan for short periods with their national ID cards – and the Central Asian country’s President has urged his compatriots to welcome the new arrivals.

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

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

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

Almira Orlova, a nutritionist based in Almaty, says she has helped find housing for at least 26 Russians.

“They would arrive to my apartment, stay for a while, then stay in the apartments of my friends,” she says.

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

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

“When I told them that I’m Kazakh, they said ‘I’m sorry I really cannot.’ And we weren’t able to find an apartment for two months,” Orlova says.

“Citizens of Central Asia who went to Russia for labor migration purposes face some serious discrimination in Russia,” says Kadyr Toktogulov, former ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to the United States and Canada.

The former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan has also seen a large “reverse migration” of Russians fleeing the draft.

“I don’t think that Russians coming to Central Asia that are fleeing the draft will be having the same kind of problems or facing the kind of discrimination that citizens of Central Asian republics have been facing for years in Russia,” says Toktogulov.

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

Real estate experts say the flood of Russian exiles have 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 only individuals coming, the big [Russian] companies and corporate business, they are moving their companies to Kazakhstan,” says Madina Abilpanova, a managing partner at DM Associates, a real estate firm based in Almaty.

Madina Abilpanova, managing partner at DM Associates in Almaty.

She says Russian companies have approached her, looking to relocate hundreds of their employees in an effort to protect them from military conscription.

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

She speaks to CNN at City Hub, a co-working space in central Almaty, where the desks are filled with young Russians laboring silently on their laptops.

Recent Russian arrivals work at a co-working 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 walked in the door. The business owners had to turn him away because there was no room.

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

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

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

Unlike many other Russians who suddenly fled into exile, Vadim can count on earning a salary for the time being.

But he does not know when – or if – he will ever see his grandmother in Moscow.

“I very much hope to see her again,” Vadim says, his eyes welling up with tears.

“But I don’t know how much time she has left. I hope that I can return one day at least to bury her.”



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