ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan's veteran leader has urged post-Soviet states to show more tolerance towards migrant workers and called for more open trade among them.
Millions of migrants from impoverished former Soviet republics work in Russia and Kazakhstan, the region's biggest oil economies. Russia is especially criticized by rights groups for failing to protect such workers from racism and abuse.
"Countries in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] should show more tolerance towards migrant workers," President Nursultan Nazarbaev said in opening remarks at a summit of CIS prime ministers in the Kazakh capital Astana.
"Kazakhstan also hosts about one million workers itself. We are trying to do everything we can not to reject them, given that our neighbors are not exactly doing well."
Resentment towards migrants, mainly from Kazakhstan's poorer Central Asian neighbors and the Caucasus, has grown in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Addressing an audience that included Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko, the Kazakh leader appealed for more unity in fighting unemployment, crime, and drug trafficking in the region.
"One of the main questions is how to overcome the crisis which is unfolding today...and how we can cooperate and open up markets for each others' products," said Nazarbaev, one of the longest-serving post-Soviet leaders.
During the summit, CIS premiers will discuss ways of breathing new life into the grouping, which was created to achieve a civilized divorce when the Soviet Union collapsed but has failed to become an effective integration body.
Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in August last year, has announced its intention to leave the bloc altogether.
But most of its members, some of which, like Armenia and Azerbaijan, are locked in bilateral conflicts, use summits as a convenient meeting point for maintaining informal contacts. Putin's meeting with Tymoshenko will be watched particularly closely on May 22 after a Russian government source said a day before that the two nations were on the verge of a new gas dispute.
Russia, which supplies a quarter of Europe's gas mainly via the territory of Ukraine, has cut gas to Ukraine twice in recent years over pricing disputes amid icy political relations between Moscow and Kyiv.