Post-Soviet migration and diasporas

David Carment,
Professor of International Affairs,
NPSIA, Carleton University,
Ottawa, Canada

Milana Nikolko,
Adjunct Professor,
Carleton University,
Ottawa, Canada

Thirty years after the collapse of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Soviet past is still considered to be the most significant and personally relevant experience for millions of its people. Their common origins most visible at an ideological level, a shared history and the idea of Russian as the lingua franca, served as the basic unifying principles of the past for all peoples under the Soviet umbrella. Today these same principles continue on as the basic bonds that bring together the Former Soviet Union’s (FSU) migrant communities from all over the world.  concerned with processes of identity construction among the variety of post-Soviet diaspora experiences in an increasingly transnational world. Post-Soviet diasporas carry all the specifics of contemporary immigration movements and remain very much relevant to and part of major global trends, including post-colonialism, economic mobility and cultural communication and frequent circulation between homelands and host countries. At the same time, post-Socialist migration processes helped created unique and in some cases new diaspora identities with a strong Soviet nostalgia.

In 1990s term “diaspora” became a generic term for the new minority of 25 million ethnic Russians in the fifteen successor states resulting from the end of the Soviet Union. From 1990 to 1998, more than 2.8 million ethnic Russians, or more than 11% of all ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics outside Russia, returned to Russia. In contrast to most historic diasporas, the Russian diaspora still has a powerful homeland of its own – that is the Russian Federation, where the external Russian “homeland” is seen as a concrete political agent, whereas the adoption of supportive policies by Moscow are examined as a way to reinforce a sense of identity with Russia, particularly if there exists a sense that the diaspora people have become victims of the new nationalising states.

Ethnic Russian emigration started in Central Asia, comprising 28% of their combined Russian population, and in particular from Transcaucasia. More than 45% of all ethnic Russians previously living in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia left these countries. The ethnic conflicts of the North and South Caucasus impacted migration dynamics, with more than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers leaving the region and settling in nearing countries and going further to Europe.

Central Asia and Kazakhstan alone together provided two-thirds of the net inflow of ethnic Russians to Russia. A more recent European vector of Russian emigration must also be considered as a direct impact of the Ukrainian crisis when more than a million of ethnic Russians left Ukraine for Russia beginning in 2014.

The growing prominence of post-Soviet diaspora communities around the world has led to increased recognition of the role they play in the domestic affairs in their new homelands in Europe, Asia and North America as well as many other places.  A key area of interest is  diaspora network development with diasporas functioning through unwritten ground rules (UWGs) that, depending on the kind of relations between home and host state guide their behaviour either outside institutionalized relational frameworks or within them. For example where relations between home and host state are positive and non-contentious the diaspora may enjoy access to formalized bilateral state mechanisms such as aid, trade and defence.

Where relations are more contentious the diaspora may favour transnational mechanisms with a preference for UWGs. Detailed analysis of the mechanisms, tactics and fundraising that diaspora networks rely on will not only improve our knowledge of these UWGs, it will help us understand how positionality favours some kind of diaspora activity over others. For example around crisis onset, the Ukrainian diaspora engaged in average levels of investment activity and were not contributing significantly to  reducing corruption, improving governance or strengthening property rights. The diaspora were at best making modest contributions to capital investment and signalling weak institutional legitimacy to other investors. Over time remittance flows have improved. It is too early to say if other diaspora financial activities are impacting  Ukraine governance or stabilising the economy.

At the same time strong linkages between Russia and the Russian-speaking diaspora across Eastern Europe have been one of the fundamental prerequisites for advancing the protection of minority rights and economic-political integration. For example in Estonia, we find sustainable models of regional minority autonomy and firm, yet clearly defined, legal frameworks that mitigate against popular discontent and grievances among the Russian-speaking diaspora. At one time Estonia’s social exclusion of its minorities was greater than Latvia’s. Today, we observe that while Estonia maintains a relatively balanced position on minority engagement, even amid conflict with Russia, Latvia is experiencing increasing tensions with its minorities.


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