Russia is struggling with labour shortages after border closures to stem the spread of coronavirus sharply reduced the traditional cross-border migration flows from central Asia.

Both sides have come to rely on the movement of people. For Russia, migrants are a source of cheap labour for jobs that locals refuse to take on. For the central Asian states, migrants’ remittances contribute a substantial chunk of their gross domestic product and their departure helps to reduce unemployment at home.

But by early April there were 5.5m foreigners in Russia — 42 per cent fewer than a year ago according to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Ranepa). Construction and agriculture were particularly badly affected.

“We have had very few migrants remaining over the past year. And we badly, badly need these migrants to implement our ambitious plans,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month.

“We must build more than we are building now. We need to build significantly more. But that requires hands. Their number has dropped due to the pandemic,” he said according to local media.

Russia’s deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin estimated the shortage of migrant workers in construction alone to be 1.5m to 2m people.

“Construction workers’ salaries were raised by 50 per cent due to [labour] shortages, and doubled in some places. [But] even while paying double it is extremely hard to find people,” he told local media. “We believe this is one of the key factors holding back construction development as a whole.”

Line chart of Millions showing The number of foreign citizens entering Russia has fallen sharply

Agriculture also faced the risk of having to halt some work because of a shortage of 38,000 migrant workers who usually carry out seasonal jobs, Russian deputy agriculture minister Dzhambulat Hautov said earlier this year. He called on Moscow to open the borders for them.

In some southern regions such as Volgograd and Astrakhan foreigners comprised 60 per cent of the labour force in high season, Hautov said, adding that locals lacked the necessary skills and refused to go out into the fields even at higher salaries.

The agriculture ministry plans to spend Rbs184m ($2.5m) to subsidise the costs of additional recruitment for farmers. Yet despite the need for more workers, Moscow has recently toughened up its rhetoric about immigration.

In December, President Vladimir Putin lengthened the deadline for migrants already in Russia to apply for extensions of their work permits by three extra months, but that hiatus is set to run out in mid-June.

And last month, deputy interior minister Alexander Gorovoy told the estimated 1m unregistered migrants living in Russia that they must get out by then or risk being deported. Russia could also close its border with countries whose citizens do not comply, he said.

This is a power play by Moscow in a bid to exert its influence over the central Asian ex-Soviet republics, according to analysts. About 85 per cent of migrants in Russia come from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), according to Ranepa.

“Russia undoubtedly uses the labour migration policy regarding the CIS as soft power,” said Irina Ivakhnyuk, a member of Global Migration Policy Associates.

“It allows it to apply its paternalistic attitude to the former Soviet republics on the one hand, and on the other, threaten to expel labour migrants in case of a conflict as it understands the role the opportunity to work and earn in Russia plays in ensuring social stability in the countries of the region,” she said.

Uzbekistan, central Asia’s most populous country with close to 35m people, is one of the biggest sources of Russia’s migrant workers. More than 1m Uzbek citizens lived in Russia last year, according to Uzbekistan’s labour ministry — but that figure was down 25 per cent year on year.

The ministry expects the numbers to rise again in the coming months after some flights between Russia and Uzbekistan resumed in April. That cannot come too soon for Tashkent. Uzbekistan’s population is growing rapidly and it has an annual shortage of 200,000 jobs, president Shavkat Mirziyoyev estimated last year, so unless people find work abroad, the country faces widespread unemployment.

The government encourages labour migration but it is trying to offer its citizens more education and work opportunities in Europe, Turkey and Asia to offset the political risks of continued reliance on Russia for work.

“It would be a mistake to think migration from central Asia will remain purely Russia-oriented,” said Olga Gulina, the founder of the Institute on Migration Policy in Germany. “It is gaining speed in the EU, too. The proportions are very small, but they were non-existent 20 years ago.”

Line chart of $bn showing Remittances outflows from Russia have fallen in recent years

Russia’s economic woes, geopolitical tensions resulting in western sanctions and the devaluation of the rouble since 2014 have made it a less attractive destination for foreign workers.

The flow of migrants from European post-Soviet republics such as the Baltic states, Moldova and Ukraine has dropped dramatically in recent years, leaving Russia heavily reliant on central Asia, according to Ranepa research fellow Nikita Mkrtchan.

In future, “we can count on a very [limited] increase in migrants and a narrow range of countries supplying them”, he said.

But despite the dwindling effect of foreign workers in Russia’s labour market, there is little sign that local people are willing to fill the gap.

“The experience of previous economic crises has shown that a decrease in the number of foreign workers does not lead to a symmetrical increase in local hires,” Ivakhnyuk said.

“The workplaces occupied by foreigners are most often not in demand among Russians, and even in times of crisis, Russian citizens left jobless prefer to wait for the hard times to pass, relying on social payments or savings, but not lowering their social status by agreeing to clean streets or become manual workers.”