When relatives and guests gathered for dinner recently at Mamnuna Bobokulova's rented three-room apartment outside Almaty, there was only one topic of conversation: the impact of the recent devaluation of the tenge, Kazakhstan's national currency.
Bobokulova and her guests are all Tajiks who work as migrant laborers in Kazakhstan. Like anyone else who earns and keeps their savings in the tenge, migrants, too, have witnessed their funds shrink by nearly 20 percent overnight as a result of the February 11 devaluation.
Bobokulova says she and fellow migrants have learned quickly that they stand to suffer more when economic and political crises hit their host country. She feels the impact of the devaluation on her and her family when she transfers money to Tajikistan. This is because remittances are transferred only in U.S. dollars.
"Yesterday, I took 30,000 tenges to send to my in-laws. What was equal to $200 before the devaluation bought only $160," Bobokulova says. "It's a big blow to our family budget. You feel the pain right away."
A loss of $40 makes a noticeable difference to a family budget in Tajikistan, where the average monthly salary is about $120 and jobs are hard to come by. Bobokulova and her husband make about four or five times that amount selling shoes at an Almaty bazaar.
Still Attractive Option?
There are an estimated 80,000 Tajik migrants living in Kazakhstan, with many working as market traders or construction workers.
Kazakhstan is the second-largest labor-migrant destination for Central Asian countries after Russia. With its developing economy, booming construction sector, and relative political stability, Kazakhstan is seen by many Central Asians as an up-and-coming migrant destination.
Kazakhstan's close proximity -- as well as its similarity in culture, religion, and traditions -- are an added incentive. And for Kyrgyz and Uzbeks any language barriers are easier to hurdle because, just like their native tongues, Kazakh is a Turkic language.
"Unlike Russia, you don't run the risk of racist attacks, or police harassment," says Suhrob Sultonov, a Tajik taxi driver in Almaty. "I know many Tajik migrants here who used to work in Russia but have moved to Kazakhstan, despite the fact that you earn a lot less here in comparison to Russia."
Sultonov adds: "If your documents are in order, and if you obey the law, you don't have worry about anything. Sometimes police stop me but they see my documents are in order and they immediately let me go."
It seems unlikely that the tenge devaluation will prompt migrants to leave Kazakhstan immediately, although it has made many feel less secure.
Central Asian Shock Waves
Bobokulova says the crisis highlights the privileges of citizenship. The 32-year-old shoe-seller, who is an economist by profession, says she watches how Kazakhs have protested their government's decision to devalue the national currency.
The abrupt devaluation has sent prices for all commodities and services soaring, and prompted widespread panic among citizens and migrants alike.
But taking to the street is not an option for Bobokulova and hundreds of thousands of other migrant workers. "The citizens can hope for some kind of possible compensation from their state, some protection, or at the very least they can rally and voice their discontent," Bobokulova says. "But migrants just have to swallow the pain. You have nobody to complain to."
Over dinner, Bobokulova and her guests avoided discussion of their most dire realities. But she notes that two of her guests, both market traders, have borrowed significant amounts in dollars. "They were saving cash for a couple of months to pay off their debts to suppliers. My other guests borrowed from acquaintances in Tajikistan to pay for supplies," she explains. "What a huge difference one day made to our financial abilities."
Back in Tajikistan, Bobokulova's brother-in-law, Shahboz Bobokulov, is anxiously watching the tenge. He had grown accustomed to not having to worry about his parents and younger siblings' finances because they could rely on money coming from Almaty.
That left the schoolteacher in northern Sughd Province free to focus on his own family of five. Now he is considering packing his bags and becoming a migrant worker in order to help his parents. Kazakhstan remains his first choice, although he hasn't yet made a decision.
"I was really worried when I heard about the devaluation. I constantly follow it on the Internet and on television," Shahboz says. "I'm planning to go to Kazakhstan and see the situation there. Then will decide what to do next."