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Why Restrict Emigration: Autocrats’ Economic Ideas in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
The Korean Journal of International Studies 21-2 (August 2023), 277-310
Published online August 31, 2023
© 2023 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Song Ha Joo [Bio-Data]
Received May 29, 2023; Revised June 13, 2023; Accepted July 17, 2023.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
What explains different patterns of emigration restrictions in autocracies? While scholars have focused on the politics of immigration, less attention has been paid to the politics of emigration. In this article, I argue that autocrats’ economic ideas can be a key factor influencing emigration policies. I test this hypothesis by conducting comparative case studies on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both major migrant-sending autocracies. Despite sharing many commonalities, the two countries exhibit remarkable variations in their emigration restrictions. The findings reveal that Uzbekistan’s former dictator, Islam Karimov, aimed to establish an autarkic and self-reliant economy, perceiving emigration as unnecessary. As a result, Uzbekistan adopted restrictive emigration policies. In contrast, Tajikistan’s leader, Emomali Rahmon, has encouraged international economic integration and enacted policies for promoting labor migration. These results provide a new perspective on the dearth of literature on the determinants of emigration policies and authoritarian politics.
Keywords : migration, authoritarian politics, emigration policy, ideas, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan

Why do authoritarian regimes differ in their propensity to restrict emigration? What explains variations in autocrats’ support for their citizens abroad? Emigration control in authoritarian countries poses a puzzle. While some autocracies, such as the Soviet Union and North Korea, harshly restricted citizens’ movements, others such as the Philippines and South Korea’s military dictatorship permitted or promoted international emigration (Light 2012; Lee 2017; Miller and Peters 2020). Nonetheless, we know relatively little about the determinants of emigration policy, as the comparative scholarship on migration has focused predominantly on the politics of immigration (Lee 2017; Kapur 2010). This is an important oversight, considering the significance of control over human mobility under authoritarian rule, and migration policies’ effects on the flow and well-being of migrants (Miller and Peters 2020; Massey 1999). Explaining variations in emigration policies can address a major gap in our understanding of authoritarian politics as well as global migration.

In this article, I argue that autocrats’ economic ideas can be a key factor shaping emigration policy. Emigration is critical for the survival of sending states as well as top leadership, and presumably, autocrats have a vested interest in emigration policy. Thus, one could expect that authoritarian governments are more likely to set up emigration policies that reflect the political leadership’s ideas. Specifically, I argue that autocrats’ ideas of how an economy should function exert great influence on the formulation of emigration restrictions. States in which autocrats strive to establish autarkic, self-reliant rule deem migrant workers unnecessary, and such countries are more likely to restrict emigration. By contrast, if autocrats encourage international integration in their economy, they are more likely to admit international migrant workers, and thus, allow and even promote migration.

I test this argument with a focus on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, major migrant-sending states in the post-Soviet region and the world. In 2019, Uzbekistan ranked 18th as the world’s most remittance-dependent country, and Tajikistan ranked second (World Bank 2019). Despite sharing many historical, political, and socio-economic conditions, these two countries have implemented remarkably divergent emigration policies since gaining independence. I conducted comparative case studies on the emigration policies of both countries, utilizing original documentary sources such as news articles, reports from international organizations and NGOs, and government documents. Much of the evidence examined in this article has not appeared before in English-language scholarship. The analysis reveals that the economic ideas of autocrats facilitated the variation in emigration policies. In Uzbekistan, pursuing self-reliance and autarky, President Islam Karimov neglected and even criticized Uzbek migrants. As a result, Uzbekistan imposed harsh restrictions on emigration without providing any assistance to its citizens working abroad. By contrast, in Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon endorsed international economic intervention and integration. He recognized the outmigration of citizens and attempted to support emigrants. Following Karimov’s death in 2016 and the accession of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who emphasized international integration and the country’s opening-up, Uzbekistan eased its emigration restrictions.

The findings in this article make two important contributions. First, analyzing the determinants of emigration policies from a comparative perspective, this article contributes to the literature on comparative migration politics. In contrast to the substantial literature on immigration policies, only a few examine the drivers of emigration policies in a comparative framework (Kapur 2014; Lee 2017). Most research on sending states tends to concentrate on emigrant behavior, remittances, or descriptive studies on emigration policies (Brand 2006; Kluczewska and Korneev 2022). This paucity of detailed treatment of emigration policies and state behavior in the literature is striking, given the significant implications of emigration restrictions for global migration flows and understanding of the politics of the sending states (Massey 1999; Kapur 2014). The article addresses this important gap by analyzing the determinants of emigration policies from a comparative perspective.

Second, by demonstrating the effects of a hitherto overlooked role of autocrats’ ideas on emigration policy-making, the findings shed new light on the theoretical framework for emigration policies. While studies on authoritarian politics underscore the importance of autocratic leaders’ ideas (Darden 2009; Lee 2010; Fazendeiro 2017; Jones 2015), surprisingly, they have received little attention in the literature on emigration policies. The existing literature on emigration policies has predominantly centered on various actors such as migrants, local governments, bureaucrats, and international organizations (Iskander 2010; FitzGerald 2009; Kluczewska and Korneev 2022), neglecting the role of top leadership. Recent studies have made significant contributions by highlighting autocrat’s calculations of the cost-benefits of emigration and the impact of migration on democratization (Miller and Peters 2020; Alemán and Woods 2014). However, these theories still fail to explain considerable variations in emigration policies observed among autocracies. This article demonstrates that autocrats’ ideas regarding the economy can help explain emigration policies, offering a novel perspective on the existing theoretical work. However, it is important to note that this research does not contend that economic ideas alone can account for emigration policies in autocracies or propose a single theoretical framework for emigration policies. The results suggest the necessity for further consideration of autocrats’ ideas, serving as a foundation for constructing models of emigration policy in authoritarian settings.


Comparative scholarship on migration has focused primarily on the immigration policies in receiving states (Lee 2017; Kapur 2010). This does not mean that scholars have not addressed migration from the sending states at all. Nonetheless, as Miller and Peters (2020) point out, existing studies on emigration tend to examine either diaspora policy (Gamlen 2008; De Haas 2007; Brand 2006) or motivation for migration or the impact of emigration and remittances (Barsbai et al. 2017; Meseguer and Burgess 2014; Pfaff and Kim 2003; Pfutze 2012; Spilimbergo 2009; Moses 2011; Docquier et al. 2016; Ahmed 2012; Escribà-Folch, Meseguer Yebra, and Wright 2021; Leblang 2010; Johns, Langer, and Peters 2022; Kapur 2010). As such, we still know relatively little about state behavior and the determinants of emigration policies.

The existing literature on Eurasian migration reveals a similar lacuna. Kluczewska and Korneev (2022, 2) point out that discussions on emigration governance and state behavior in Eurasia are virtually absent, in contrast to the scholarship on diaspora policy (King and Melvin 1999; Ferrando 2009), migration and policy trends (Schmidt and Sagynbekova 2008; Marat 2009; Kim 2012; Dadabaev and Soipov 2022; Sibagatulina 2021; FIDH 2016; Sippola 2014; Mamatkhanov 2020; Erdoğan 2021), and the causes and consequences of migration (Abazov 1999; Radnitz 2006; Seitz 2019; Kakhkharov et al. 2021; Ahunov et al. 2015; Bondarenko 2021; Turaeva 2016; Ilkhamov 2013; Ruget and Usmanalieva 2008). A few studies have explored emigration policies (Ryazantsev 2013; UNDP 2015; Riazantsev 2016; d’Appollonia and Kasymova 2015; Bahovadinova 2016), yet less attention has been paid to the determinants of emigration policies.

While studies have established cross-national variations in emigration policies (Lee 2017; Siracusa and Acacio 2004; Biao 2003; Fargues 2004; Rodriguez 2010), few have attempted to explain the divergent policies from a comparative perspective. Some scholars have dissected the state and emphasized the roles of various institutions that have different interests in emigration policy-making. For instance, Iskander (2010) highlighted the role of migrants and migrant interaction with state actors in the development of migration policies. FitzGerald (2009) showed how Mexican local governments and international actors such as the United States have played an important role in the execution of federal emigration policies in Mexico. Based on the case of Tajikistan, Kluczewska and Korneev (2022) and Korneev (2018) demonstrated the role of bureaucratic politics as well as international organizations in emigration policy-making. Examining different actors within and outside the sending state, existing studies have deepened our understanding of emigration governance. Nonetheless, without specifying under which circumstances different actors engage in politics and exercise influence, these studies fail to provide an analytical framework or testable hypothesis applicable to other sending states.

A few recent studies have bridged the literature on regime politics and migration and stressed autocrats’ strategies for political survival in explaining emigration policies. For example, Aleman and Woods (2014) argue that autocracies tighten emigration because relaxing travel restrictions can threaten a regime’s stability. Miller and Peters (2020) covered new ground by considering how migration flows affect autocrats’ decisions. They argue that when citizens move to democracies, autocracies are more likely to democratize, and thus, autocrats tighten their emigration policies in response. In contrast, regarding economic emigration, autocrats tend to adopt a liberal emigration policy. Miller and Peters (2020) make a significant contribution by providing a parsimonious theory based on a rigorous empirical analysis. Nonetheless, we still find considerable variations in emigration policies among autocracies that have similar migration flows. For instance, Central Asian states have adopted notably different emigration policies, although most migrants move to Russia for economic reasons. This empirical deviation suggests the need to consider other factors explaining emigration policies. In the next section, building on the insights and limitations of the existing literature, I develop a theory of emigration policy-making in authoritarian settings.


The literature on the politics of immigration has developed in isolation from scholarship on authoritarian politics (Shin 2017, 15). With few exceptions (Alemán and Woods 2014; Miller and Peters 2020), the literature on emigration shows a similar separation. While some scholars have contended that regime dynamics exert little influence on the politics of migration (Schenk 2018; Kluczewska and Korneev 2022), I argue that regime politics is essential for understanding emigration policies. Policy-making and migration governance in authoritarian regimes have different institutional settings and logic from those in democracies (Shin 2017; Glasius 2018). Empirical evidence shows that democracies rarely use emigration restrictions, while autocracies enact varying emigration policies (Alemán and Woods 2014; Miller and Peters 2020). This suggests that the character of political regimes is an important component of emigration policy-making, and thus bridging the literature on migration and authoritarian politics can help account for emigration policies.

In this article, following the same line of thought as Miller and Peters (2020), I also argue that emigration policy in authoritarian regimes is largely driven by the dictators’ calculation of the costs and benefits of migration. Miller and Peters (2020) maintain that autocrats’ strategical calculation is based on the economic and political benefits of emigration and the risk of increased democratization. However, I argue that another factor can play a critical role in autocrats’ reasoning about emigration policy—their ideas about how the economy should function. The literature on regime politics and migration suggests that the consideration of economic ideas may help better understand emigration policy-making in authoritarian settings in two respects.

First, existing studies on policy-making in authoritarian regimes and Eurasian politics demonstrate that autocrats’ ideas do matter for policies (Darden 2009; Lee 2010; Fazendeiro 2017; Jones 2015). I concur with Kluczewska and Korneev’s (2022) point that the state is a non-unitary actor and that authoritarian policy-making will involve not just autocrats but others such as migrants, bureaucrats, and international organizations. Nevertheless, existing research on authoritarian politics suggests that the influence of dictators’ ideas on policy-making is too great to dismiss. In authoritarian policy-making, ideas shared among government officials are more important than those of societal actors, as government officials are insulated from electoral pressures, and thus are not held accountable (Darden 2009, 45–49). Moreover, the policy process is inaccessible to societal actors, and the political leadership firmly controls the stock of ideas that is available to citizens (Darden 2009, 45–49). Certainly, existing studies on policy-making in authoritarian regimes have underlined the importance of the political leadership’s ideas (Darden 2009; Lee 2010; Fazendeiro 2017; Jones 2015). Especially in personalistic dictatorships, such as many post-Soviet states, autocrats’ ideas have played a crucial role in shaping foreign policy, ethnic policy, economic policy, and energy policy (Lee 2010; Suny 1999; Anceschi 2010; Xu and Reisinger 2019). For instance, exploring variations in post-Soviet states’ policies toward economic liberalism, Darden (2009) shows that the divergent policies are a consequence of the political leadership’s different economic ideas. Thus, one could expect that authoritarian governments are more likely to set up emigration policies that reflect the political leadership’s ideas, instead of those of other societal actors.

Second, emigration plays a critical role for the survival of sending states as well as their top leadership, and thus, arguably, autocrats have a vested interest in, and a strong opinion on, emigration policies. In such circumstances, autocrats’ ideas should directly influence the formulation of emigration policies. Studies have shown that even in developed democracies, immigration policies are often driven by politicians rather than other actors (Freeman 1995; Statham and Geddes 2006). Emigration is a high-stake issue for autocrats: it can deliver economic benefits through remittances, investment, and migrant networks, while also reducing political pressures because those who are dissatisfied with the regime may choose to leave the country (Hirschman 1970; Miller and Peters 2020; Kapur 2014; Kapur and McHale 2012). Simultaneously, emigration also poses a threat to the regime since citizens are exposed to democratic ideas and gain opportunities for political activity (Miller and Peters 2020; Kapur 2014). Many studies show emigration and remittances are deeply related with government turnover, popular discontent, and the survival of the regime in poor sending states (Ahmed 2012; Kapur 2014; Escribà-Folch, Meseguer Yebra, and Wright 2021).1 Therefore, emigration policy stands as one of the most crucial matters for autocrats in sending states, and it is likely that autocrats maintain a vested interest in emigration policies. Consequently, one could expect limited space for other actors’ ideas in the formulation of policy, as autocrats exert direct influence over emigration policies.

For these reasons, all else being equal, I argue that autocrats’ ideas may have a significant impact on emigration policy. Various ideas can inform emigration policy-making, including perspectives on relations with other states and civil liberties. However, I emphasize that views on how the economy should function are of utmost importance. As mentioned earlier, emigration and remittances have significant implications for and are closely intertwined with the national economy of sending states. While autocrats’ views on foreign relations or political liberalization can also influence emigration policies, economic ideas tend to provide a more comprehensive and systemic background for such policies. Similar to Darden’s (2009) research on participation in international institutions and economic cooperation,2 I categorize economic ideas into two groups: pursuing an autarkic system versus seeking international integration. For autocrats who endeavor to establish autarky and self-reliance, migrant workers are an unnecessary component for the economy. Such countries tend to adopt restrictive emigration policies. On the contrary, if autocrats encourage international economic integration and opening their country to the international community, they are likely to recognize and support international migrant workers.

H1 All else being equal, autocrats’ ideas about the economy account for emigration policy.

H1.1 States in which autocrats pursue a closed economy should restrict emigration.

H1.2 States in which autocrats pursue international integration should promote emigration.

Regarding the scope conditions of this theory, I expect that it is applicable to low-income authoritarian sending states that rely heavily on emigration and remittances. In poor autocracies run by remittances, emigration stands as a more critical issue for the survival of the regime and thus dictators should have a strong opinion on emigration policies.


I test the hypotheses by conducting comparative cases studies on emigration policies in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (Gerring 2007), both major migrant-sending countries in the world that show great variations in emigration policies. More importantly, the two countries provide a rare opportunity for testing the hypotheses rigorously. Kyrgyzstan is also a major sending country in the region and the world, but I focus on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for two reasons. First, they share great commonalities related to migration such as socio-economic conditions and migration flows. Although Uzbekistan’s per capita GDP is a bit higher than that of Tajikistan, Uzbek nationals constitute the largest migrant worker group in Russia, and remittances sent by migrants undergird the home country’s economy. Unlike Kyrgyzstan, both countries have not joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and thus migrants face the same regulations in Russia.3 Second, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have a similar political environment, which allows us to examine the role of autocrat’s ideas while controlling for other factors. Unlike Kyrgyzstan, which has experienced multiple political upheavals and temporary leadership, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were both governed by sole dictators for extended periods following independence. These centralized and personalistic dictatorships in the two countries provide an opportunity to investigate the roles of autocrats’ ideas, as the influence of other actors, such as bureaucrats and international organizations, is largely subject to the preferences of the dictators. While some scholars argue that bureaucrats and international organizations have played an important role in emigration policy-making in Tajikistan (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022; Korneev 2018), as I will demonstrate later, their impact was minimal in Uzbekistan due to Karimov’s emphasis on isolation and self-sufficiency.4

In this article, I conduct a qualitative content analysis based on original documentary sources in English and Russian: academic research; news articles; reports from international organizations and NGOs; and government documents such as presidents’ public speeches and writings, legislation, and ministries’ records. Much of the evidence analyzed in this article has not appeared before in English-language scholarship. Given the limited access to interviews, as noted by other scholars of Eurasian politics (Goode 2010; Schenk 2018), and for practical considerations related to the global pandemic, I analyzed documents that were available online. The findings in this article are not free from potential bias due to the article’s focus on English and Russian documents, without analyzing Uzbek or Tajik ones. Future studies should address this limitation by analyzing sources in Uzbek and Tajik and different types of data such as interviews and statistics.


The fall of the Soviet Union ignited massive migration flows. By the end of the 1990s, nine million former Soviet citizens migrated in order to return to their ethnic homelands or to flee from wars (Shevel 2011, 27).5 A wave of migration is still active in the region. To escape from poverty and unemployment, migrants move from poor states such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to wealthier countries. According to the data collected by the Central Asian Migration Tracker, in 2019, 2.11 million Uzbek citizens and 1.18 million Tajik citizens received work visas for employment in foreign countries (Khashimov et al. 2020). However, the actual number of migrant workers may be much higher due to a significant portion working without official permission.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are highly dependent on emigration, and remittances comprise a large part of household income (UNDP 2015). Remittance inflows account for about one-third of Tajikistan’s GDP, making it the second-most remittance-dependent country in the world in 2019 (World Bank 2019). Compared to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan’s GDP is less reliant on remittances (14.3%), yet its total amount of remittances is much greater than that of Tajikistan (World Bank 2019). Sharing a Soviet history, diaspora community, and visa-free agreements among most CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries, Uzbek and Tajik migrants mainly move to richer countries in the region such as Russia and Kazakhstan. While some migrants go to Kazakhstan, Turkey, South Korea, and other countries, Russia is the primary destination for most migrants from both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (UNDP 2015; Seitz 2019; Sputnik Tajikistan 2020). Seitz (2019)’s study suggested 75 % of Uzbek workers went to Russia, and 14 % migrated to Kazakhstan. Officials of the Republic of Tajikistan have pointed out that among 530,000 Tajik labor migrants in 2019, 520,000 migrated to Russia, and 9,000 headed to Kazakhstan (Sputnik Tajikistan 2020).

However, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have implemented markedly different policies to manage emigration.6 First, Uzbekistan adopted more restrictions to control the population’s mobility than Tajikistan did. According to the Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) dataset, between 1992 and 2011, Uzbekistan’s freedom of foreign movement and travel was more limited than that of Tajikistan (Cingranelli, Richards, and Chad Clay 2014). One prominent example is an exit visa system, a legacy of Soviet population control policy. Many CIS countries abolished it in the 1990s and the early 2000s (Eshanova 2002).7 While Tajikistan rescinded the exit visa system in 2002, Uzbekistan retained it until 2018 and required Uzbek citizens to seek government approval to leave for non-CIS countries.

Second, whereas the government of Tajikistan has tried to help migrants abroad and engage with diaspora communities, such efforts have been absent in Uzbekistan. Although the effectiveness of these initiatives is questionable, the government of Tajikistan endeavored to create favorable conditions for labor migrants using legislation, state programs, and international cooperation (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022). For instance, Tajikistan established bilateral agreements with Russia to simplify migration procedures for Tajik workers and lift a travel ban on 100,000 Tajik migrants (Eurasianet 2019). In Uzbekistan, under Karimov’s presidency, the government virtually ignored outmigration and did not implement any measures for helping migrants or engaging with diaspora communities (Sidikov and Kjuka 2013; IWPR 2013). Table 1 illustrates a comparison of emigration policies in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which will be discussed in detail in the following sections. The comparison reveals that Tajikistan adopted a more accommodative approach to emigration.


Until recently, Uzbekistan was ruled by Islam Karimov, who led the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union until his death in 2016. During his leadership, Uzbekistan retained “the presidential form of the government” in policy-making (Gleason 2003, 118, 129–30): the president exercised monopolistic control over policy-making processes, and the executive branch dominated the legislature and the judiciary (Gleason 2003, 118).9 Even at the regional level, government officials pointed out that most policies came directly from the president (Spechler 2008, 29).

During his rule, Karimov emphasized self-reliance as the foundation for the general direction of Uzbekistan (Gleason 2003; Fazendeiro 2017). In the early 1990s, he advocated maintaining economic and political linkages with former Soviet Union countries rather than stressing self-reliance or autarky (Darden 2009, 202; Fazendeiro 2017). However, his ideas evolved while undergoing a chaotic period after the fall of the Soviet Union (Darden 2009, 202).10 Emphasizing the economic and political independence of Uzbekistan, Karimov adopted policies to build a closed economy (Gleason 2003, 119; Fazendeiro 2017). Self-reliance (mustaqillik) or the self-reliant idea (mustaqillik g’oyasi) appeared in his speeches and published works, and served as the Uzbekistan government’s mantra in all of its policies (Fazendeiro 2017, 412). For example, in foreign policy-making, Karimov was suspicious of Russia as the exploitative center and pursued bilateral relations instead of multilateral cooperation proposed by Russia (Fazendeiro 2017). What mattered most was how certain foreign policy decisions would affect Uzbekistan’s autonomy (Dadabaev 2020, 178). Thus, Uzbekistan was unsupportive of regional cooperation led by Russia: it never joined the EAEU and left the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 (Romanova 2016).

In economic policies, Karimov’s ideas played a particularly pivotal role given the regime’s centralized system and his background (Spechler 2008, 31). In Soviet Union, Karimov served as head of the State Planning Commission and Minister of Finance (Darden 2009, 201). As an economist, he had his own vision for the economy (Darden 2009, 201). According to Karimov, for Uzbekistan’s development, it was necessary to achieve self-sufficiency by developing industries and using its own resources (Darden 2009, 202). Thus, Uzbekistan’s economic program was designed to unravel the interdependence of its economy with former Soviet Union states and to make “the country as economically independent, or autarkic, as possible.” (Darden 2009, 202). Such a policy direction was implemented throughout his rule. Uzbekistan enacted policies to develop industries for import substitution, secure national self-sufficiency in energy and agriculture, and build an internally oriented services market (Gleason 2003, 119). For this, Uzbekistan created a system of subsidies and price support for its industries and agriculture while the government imposed tight restrictions on trade and currency movements (Gleason 2003, 119). Uzbekistan also cut its ties with countries in the region. In 2009, it unilaterally withdrew from the joint Central Asian Power System and the reorganization of the region’s rail system (Fazendeiro 2017, 423).

In that context, migration was of no interest to Karimov. In the 1990s, similar to other former Soviet Union states, Uzbekistan experienced an outflow of ethnic minorities, such as Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews (Prague Process 2015, 4–7; Maksakova 2010). At the same time, the scale of emigration of Uzbeks began to increase and exceed that of immigration. After the 2000s, the number of Uzbek labor migrants and remittances rose significantly due to mass unemployment and widespread poverty in the country (Prague Process 2015, 5; Maksakova 2010). However, labor migration was not on the government’s agenda. In his published writings in the 1990s – 2000s, Karimov never discussed migration as part of his economic development strategies.11 When he rarely did, he portrayed migration as a social problem to avoid (Karimov 1996b, 52; 1996a, 31; 2003, 259). He and government officials neglected or even denied the fact that large numbers of its citizens left the country for work (IWPR 2013; Sarvarova and Abdullaeva 2010). Presumably, outmigration and Uzbekistan’s dependence on remittances directly contradicted Karimov’s idea of self-sufficiency and independence. According to Alisher Taksanov, an Uzbek journalist and politician, Karimov did not want to admit labor migration because doing so meant acknowledging the fact that his economic programs had failed and that the economy was run by remittances (Central Asia.Media 2013).

Thus, Karimov’s government tightly restricted Uzbek citizens’ freedom of movement. First, as mentioned in the previous section, until 2018, Uzbek citizens had to seek government approval to travel to non-CIS countries, pursuant to the 1995 visa law of the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan (Eshanova 2002; Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers No. 8 1995). Accordingly, Uzbek citizens desiring to go to non-CIS countries were required to apply for an exit visa at a special department in the Interior Ministry, which involved interrogations by security officials (Eshanova 2002; Turaeva 2016, 51–52). Until 2015, Uzbek citizens’ exit visas could be renewed only in Uzbekistan (Umaraliev 2015).

Second, according to Uzbekistan’s law, most labor migrants lacked legal status and thus could not receive necessary protection, while the government of Uzbekistan did not adopt policies to assist migrants or engage with diaspora communities. Officially, Uzbek citizens possess the right to carry out labor activities under the law on labor migration of February 1992 (modified in May 1998) as well as the Regulation of Cabinet of Ministers of November 2003 (Ryazantsev 2013, 12; Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers No. 505 2003). In 2003, the Agency for External Labor Migration (hereafter, the Agency) was created under the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection to implement labor migration (Khurramov 2017). The Agency’s role involved recruiting, training, and sending labor migrants to countries with intergovernmental agreements, including South Korea, Russia, the UAE, Japan, Turkey, and Poland (KIEP 2008; Prague Process 2021). Uzbek migrants can also work abroad through private labor contracts, but they are required to submit their employment documents to the Agency for permission from the government of Uzbekistan (KIEP 2008, 79). Nonetheless, most Uzbek migrants choose to bypass the Agency’s regulations and seek employment through informal channels, such as going to Russia without work permits (Ryazantsev 2013, 13; Bologov 2013). Consequently, a significant portion of migrants remains illegal as they lack official work permission from the Agency (Khurramov 2017). Despite the massive number of Uzbek migrants leaving overseas for work, the flow remains uncontrolled, and their rights are unprotected.

This emigration policy continued throughout the Karimov regime. As previously mentioned, Karimov and officials neglected or even denied the presence of labor migrants for a long time—until the murder of an Uzbek migrant janitor in Moscow on January 13, 2013, although he was not the first Uzbek hate crime victim in Russia (Bologov 2016). On January 18, 2013, during a cabinet meeting, Karimov remarked publicly about migration for the first time (Bologov 2016). He said it was a “shame on the nation” that Uzbeks had to go abroad to seek work, and blamed Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Interior for the murder (IWPR 2013). A few months later, Karimov even made a derogatory comment about migrants. During his visit to Uzbekistan’s regions in June 2013, praising the country’s economic development, he criticized migrant workers: “There are very few lazy people in Uzbekistan now… I describe as lazy those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares. One feels disgusted with Uzbeks going there for a slice of bread.” (Sidikov and Kjuka 2013). He also went on to say that there were no beggars in Uzbekistan. Following the president’s view, the Uzbek police and Mahallah committees conducted a campaign to force migrants to return home (Bologov 2016). In some cities local officials visited migrants’ families and called migrants to persuade or threaten them to come back (Bologov 2016). Authorities issued an order prohibiting young people from going to Russia immediately after their high school graduation (Sidikov and Kjuka 2013; Info-Islam 2013). In June 2013, the Uzbekistan Migration Policy Concept was developed, which laid out a long-term strategy for the country’s social and economic development. However, it was not passed until 2018 (Prague Process 2015).

These events in 2013 seemed to imply some changes in Karimov’s views about migrants, yet he failed to provid any protection for, or assistance to, migrants. In November 2013, Karimov met with Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko and proposed an organized recruitment program to address the humiliating conditions of Uzbek migrants (Hashimova 2016). In the middle of 2015, a news report suggested that an Uzbek-Russian intergovernmental committee would start preparing an agreement on the organized employment of Uzbek migrants in Russia by the end of that year (Sputnik Tajikistan 2016). However, such an agreement did not materialize. Instead, greater attention was given to increasing the exports of Uzbek fruits and vegetables to Russia and establishing arms deals (Sputnik Tajikistan 2016). A news report suggested Karimov and Putin would discuss migration during Karimov’s official visit to Moscow in April 2016, yet they did not reach any agreement (Sputnik Uzbekistan 2016; Eurasianet 2016). These failures in Uzbekistan’s negotiations contrast with Tajikistan’s success in easing the Russian Federation’s regulations for Tajik migrants, which will be discussed in detail in the next section. This fact suggests that migration was a low priority issue for the government of Uzbekistan.

The change in Uzbekistan’s leadership and migration policy once again highlights the significant influence of autocrats’ economic ideas on migration policy. Following the death of President Karimov in 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency. Prior to that, Mirziyoyev had served as the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan from 2003 to 2016. As President, Mirziyoyev took steps to break with his predecessor’s policies and opened up Uzbekistan’s economy to re-engage with the international community (Dadabaev 2020; Sung 2020b; Blackmon 2021, 187–89). In an early 2018 meeting with officials, Mirziyoyev made a revealing statement, saying, “They [migrants] are abroad for a reason. We could not create jobs for them, that’s why they are abroad. All the problems start here” (Reuters 2018). This comment evinces Mirziyoyev’s contrasting perspective on migration compared to Karimov’s approach, which denied mass unemployment in the country and stigmatized migrants as lazy people.

Mirziyoyev introduced comprehensive changes to emigration policies, recognizing migration as an important issue and placing it at the center of the country’s economic strategy. To streamline the emigration process and support labor migrants, the government of Uzbekistan adopted a series of new legal acts (Sibagatulina 2021, 7; Abdullaeva 2022). For example, Uzbekistan established a special fund to support labor migrants and created the position of advisor to the Prime Minister for the protection of rights of labor migrants (Abdullaeva 2022). The government also allowed private employment agencies to organize the recruitment of Uzbeks for employment opportunities (Sibagatulina 2021). Another important change ushered in by President Mirziyoyev came in January 2019, when Uzbekistan finally abolished exit visas (Putz 2019).

In addition, Uzbekistan intensified international cooperation to assist labor migrants. The country finally joined the International Organization for Migration (IOM) (IOM 2018) in 2018, and signed various intergovernmental agreements on organized recruitment and the protection of labor migrants (Sibagatulina 2021, 4; Rakhmatova 2020). During Mirziyoyev’s visit to Russia in 2017, he emphasized the issue of labor migration and signed agreements to ensure the protection of the rights and interests of Uzbek migrant workers (Eurasianet 2017, 4). Uzbekistan’s first deputy minister of Employment and Labor Relations met with Russian officials, discussed building the first multifunctional migration center of the Russian Federation in Uzbekistan, and met with Uzbek migrants in Russia (Hashimova 2018). The case of Uzbekistan clearly demonstrates the role of leaders’ ideas in shaping migration policy-making.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan plunged into a civil war between 1992 and 1997. In 1992, Tajikistan came under the leadership of Emomali Rakhmonov. In 2007, he renamed himself Rahmon, removing the commonly Russian ending “-ov” (Hale 2015, 255). Unlike other post-Soviet dictators, Rahmon was not the country’s leader before the collapse of the Soviet Union (Sung 2020a). After the civil war started in 1992, he assumed the position of chief executive and took over the presidency in 1994 (Gleason 2003, 88). Rahmon successfully dissolved different factions and opposition and consolidated his personal rule. Currently, political and civil rights are severely restricted in the country, and President Rahmon and his inner circles exercise virtually unimpeded control over policy-making (Freedom House 2022).

Tajikistan’s records of policy decisions and Rahmon’s public speeches suggest he endorses international engagement and cooperation, instead of pursuing an autarkic system or self-reliance (Darden 2009, 225–26). Darden (2009, 226) points out that Rahmon has “integralist” ideas, and Tajikistan has supported economic integration with CIS states. In the 1990s, Tajikistan signed all CIS economic agreements and showed the best records of ratification and implementation (Darden 2009, 226). At the same time, Tajikistan engaged with international institutions and conducted extensive structural reforms (Gleason 2003, 88). The government of Tajikistan received advice on economic and political reforms from international experts, and accepted significant international intervention in the economy in the late 1990s (Olcott 2012, 3,4). Instead of focusing on creating a self-sufficient and independent economy, the Tajik government’s strategies for development involved promoting legal labor migration and safeguarding Tajik migrants living abroad (ILO and IOM 2009, 5).

Rahmon openly discussed migration and recognized it as an important issue for the country. He frequently referred to migration in his annual addresses.12 For instance, in his 2006 address, he said that the government was trying to help migrants, and even went into detail about Tajikistan’s agreement with Russia (The President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2006):

The main objective of state policy in the sphere of labor migration, social and legal protection of the population of the Republic of Tajikistan, temporary working abroad, is regulation of arrival and departure, prevention of illegal migration and the establishment of legality in the process of migration. The adoption of a labor migration program for citizens of the Republic of Tajikistan for the years 2006-2010 will be one of the important aspects of resolving the problem. Especially, signing and approving the Agreement between the Republic of Tajikistan and the Russian Federation on labor activity and the protection of our citizens rights in Russia and Russian citizens in the Republic of Tajikistan provides for wider opportunities of labor migration regulation.

Rahmon consistently prioritized the issue of migration, raising it in various occasions and meetings. The records available on the official website of the President of Tajikistan reveal he actively advocated for the protection of Tajik migrants and simplified procedures for registration and permission during meetings with Russian government officials.13 Rahmon addressed the legal status of labor migrants and their families and cooperation in resisting illegal labor migration during the regular EurAsEC Interstate Council meeting (President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2012c). In a meeting with the Minister of International Affairs of the Russian Federation, Rahmon expressed concern over the recent murder of Tajik citizens in Moscow (President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2016). Moreover, he promoted labor migration opportunities for Tajik citizens during meetings with leaders from countries, including South Korea, Iran, Kazakhstan, and the UAE.14 Additionally, he engaged with representatives of Tajik diasporas, students, and migrants to discuss the situation of Tajik migrants in Russia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Tajikistan 2019; President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2014b). It is worth noting that while migration is a recurring theme in the president’s public speeches, Rahmon never made derogatory comments about migrants, a stark contrast to Uzbekistan’s Karimov.

Reflecting Rahmon’s ideas, Tajikistan enacted a more open emigration policy compared to Uzbekistan. First, Tajikistan implemented a lax exit visa system, and rescinded it far earlier than Uzbekistan. Until 2002, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were the only two countries that still adhered to the Soviet exit visa system (Eshanova 2002). However, Tajik citizens encountered fewer document requirements than Uzbek citizens, and the visa process itself was less restrictive in Tajikistan than in Uzbekistan (Eshanova 2002). In August 2002, the government of Tajikistan finally abolished the exit visa requirements by repealing Article 8 of the Regulation on Travel Passport for Citizens of the Republic of Tajikistan of February 26, 1998, and simplified the process of obtaining a passport (OSCE Press Release 2002). This decision was hailed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a first important step for opening up the country (OSCE Press Release 2002; The New Humanitarian 2002).

Second, Tajikistan has embraced a more open approach to labor migration and has made efforts to protect and support migrant workers. As Ryazantsev (2013, 15) aptly noted, Tajikistan’s emigration policy can be described as a “tacit encouragement of citizens’ departure to seek employment abroad.” In the 1990s, although Tajik citizens kept fleeing the country because of economic difficulties, the Tajik government’s focus was primarily on repatriating civil war refugees and internally displaced persons (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022, 134). However, since the 2000s, Tajikistan’s labor migration policies have undergone changes: Tajikistan began to recognize and permit labor migration, implementing measures to assist its citizens working overseas.15 In 2001, the government of Tajikistan adopted the first Concept of Labor Migration, acknowledging the challenges of unemployment and labor migration (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022, 134). Kluczewska and Korneev (2022, 134) stated that this concept marked the first official admission by the Tajik government of a “laissez-faire approach to labor migration.”

Subsequently, Tajikistan experimented with different schemes and strategies to facilitate labor migration and protect its citizens abroad (Erlich 2006; Kluczewska and Korneev 2022, 135). The Migration Service, founded in 1997 to deal with the return of displaced citizens, was assigned to manage labor migration (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022, 135). Tajikistan adopted the “Program of external labor migration 2003-2005” in 2002 and “the Program of external labor migration 2006-2010” in 2005 (ILO and IOM 2009, 6). In 2011, the Tajik government adopted the National Strategy on Labor Migration for 2011-2015 to offer various social and legal services to migrants and their families (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022, 136), although the strategy was not implemented for financial reasons. However, according to international migration experts, the Strategy was a starting point for the government in acknowledging the influence of labor migration on the Tajik economy and the need to adopt a new approach to regulating migration (International Organization for Migration 2015, 103). Although experts have evaluated that much of the labor migration legislation was declarative and ineffective, these state programs and legal acts stood in contrast to Uzbekistan’s policies.

In addition, in contrast to the absolute prohibition of private recruitment agencies in Uzbekistan during the Karimov regime, Tajikistan has allowed their existence since 1993 and established a state recruitment agency in 1996 (ILO and IOM 2009, 9). With the strong promotion of international organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), the World Bank (WB), and the IOM for the organized recruitment system (Korneev 2018; Kluczewska 2021), Tajikistan created a new recruitment scheme and built the Agency of Employment Abroad. The purpose was to assist migrants in securing job opportunities within large enterprises in Russia and Kazakhstan and to provide alternative employment options for those who were unable go to Russia due to re-entry bans (Kluczewska and Korneev 2022, 137). Nonetheless, similar to Uzbek migrant workers, most Tajik citizens go abroad—mostly to Russia—by themselves bypassing intergovernmental agreements or private employment agencies (ILO and IOM 2009).16

Besides adopting legislation and programs, the government of Tajikistan has made international efforts to promote migration and assist migrants. The country has ratified a number of international conventions for migrants, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) (FIDH and ADC memorial 2011, 40). Tajikistan also receives help from international organizations such as the OSCE and the WB, and the IOM has been expanding its work in the country (Erlich 2006). With the support of the IOM, Tajikistan made a “diaspora mapping” as part of its Migration Action Plan for 2015-2020. This helped 52 diaspora organizations in the Russian Federation become connected with government officials from both Russia and Tajikistan (UNDP 2015, 45).

Tajikistan has also carried out policies for migrants at the bilateral level. It has signed agreements on the protection of labor migrants’ rights with key receiving states such as Russia and Kazakhstan (FIDH and ADC memorial 2011, 26–28; ILO and IOM 2009, 7). According to the 2004 agreement between Tajikistan and Russia, Tajik citizens are allowed to enter Russia with domestic identity documents without a foreign passport (FIDH and ADC memorial 2011, 27). In 2014-5, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Employment established representative offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which assisted migrants in recovering unpaid wages (UNDP 2015, 45–46). Following a meeting with Putin in 2012, Rahmon informed the media that they had discussed “social and legal protection for labor migrants” and agreed “to find rapid positive solutions and extend deadlines for labor migrants’ registration and the validity of their work permits” (President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2012a). As a result of this meeting, the two countries signed a document to extend the registration period for labor migrants from three to 15 days after arrival, and the validity of work permits from one to three years (President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2012b).

Rahmon also pleaded for amnesty for Tajik migrants who had been banned from entering Russia. In 2014, during President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan, Rahmon raised the issue of a re-entry ban affecting Tajik migrants (President of the Republic of Tajikistan 2014a). In 2017, the government of Tajikistan negotiated with its counterparts in the Russian Federation to lift the travel ban imposed on 100,000 Tajik migrants (Eurasianet 2019). Prior to this agreement, approximately 400,000 Tajik citizens had been blacklisted and prohibited from entering Russia (Eurasianet 2019). In 2019, during his first official visit to Moscow in 12 years, Rahmon again raised the issue of travel bans in meetings with the Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and President Putin (Eurasianet 2019; The Asia Times 2019). He also advocated for extending registration periods for Tajik citizens and reducing the fees for work permits. As a result of this visit, the two countries signed an agreement on the organized recruitment of Tajik citizens as seasonal workers in Russia (Asia-Plus 2021).


The comparison of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan shows that autocrats’ economic ideas can play a crucial role in emigration policy-making. In both countries, dictators’ economic ideas shaped emigration policies because of the centralized, personalistic dictatorship and the significance of emigration and remittances to the national economy and the stability of the regime. However, different economic ideas facilitated divergent emigration policies. In Uzbekistan, Karimov attempted to establish an autarkic, self-sufficient economy. Reflecting his ideas, Uzbekistan strongly restricted the international movement of citizens and ignored labor migrant workers without supporting them. The country’s migration policy changed after Karimov’s death in 2016 and the succession of Mirziyoyev, who strove to open up the economy and re-engage with the international community. In Tajikistan, instead of pursuing an autarkic system or self-reliance, Rahmon endorsed international engagement and cooperation. He openly discussed migration and recognized it as an important issue for the country. Tajikistan’s development strategies involved promoting legal labor migration and safeguarding Tajik migrants living abroad with the assistance of international organizations. As a result, Tajikistan adopted a more open emigration policy compared to Uzbekistan, with a lax exit visa system and a more accommodative approach to labor migration.

Despite the significant role of sending states in global migration, the comparative migration literature has neglected the politics of emigration control, undertheorizing the determinants of emigration policies. This article addresses this gap by offering a new perspective on theoretical frameworks for emigration policy, which until now have neglected the role of autocrats’ ideas. In this article, I demonstrate that autocrats’ economic ideas can be a key factor influencing emigration policy-making. However, one crucial remaining question concerns the generalizability of these findings, which are based on comparative case studies on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While both countries are major migrant-sending nations, they are unique in certain ways: they share many political and socio-economic conditions related to Soviet legacies and send most migrant workers to Russia. It is certainly not true that autocrats’ economic ideas always play an important role in all authoritarian migrant-sending states. To rigorously validate the theory’s applicability, future studies should explore countries with different migration flows. In addition, this article focuses on autocrat’s ideas in terms of a single dimension—whether they prefer an autarkic system or international integration. However, other dimensions of ideas could influence migration policy-making, which further research can explore. Despite its limitations, this article provides a starting point for building emigration policy theory within authoritarian contexts.


1 For instance, experts suggest if Russia suspends Tajik labor migrations, “Tajikistan may be in for a serious sociopolitical crisis, which could possibly lead to the collapse of the current regional-clan system of governance.” (Malashenko and Niyazi 2014, 5).

2 Note that Darden (2009) provides a much more sophisticated categorization of ideas by considering the types of international institutions states join. Darden divides post-Soviet leaders’ ideas into three groups: mercantilists; integralists who pursue cooperation with post-Soviet states; and market-liberals who support integration with international multilateral institutions instead of post-Soviet states.

3 Citizens from EAEU countries can work in Russia without permits or quotas after their home country joins the EAEU. Kyrgyzstan became an EAEU member in August 2015.

4 It is worthwhile to note that Uzbekistan joined the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2018, while Tajikistan joined it in 1994 (Geiger, Kokoeva, and Zhang 2022, 53).

5 For instance, Tajikistan suffered from civil war in 1992-97 during which 1.2 million citizens either fled abroad or were displaced within the country.

6 In line with existing immigration policy databases such as IMPIC (Immigration Policies in Comparison), this study adopts a narrow definition of policy, focusing on policy output (legal regulations) rather than policy outcome (immigration rates and remittances). For a more detailed explanation of the difference between policy output and outcome, see Helbling et al. (2017) and Easton (1965).

7 Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan removed the exit visa system in 1999, 2001, and 2002, respectively.

8 The table focuses on the period before the death of Karimov in 2016.

9 Note that some studies suggest power struggles between different actors in Uzbekistan such as clans, regional power, and patrimonial networks (Jones Luong 2002; Collins 2006; Hale 2015, 242–46; Lee 2016).

10 Further research is necessary to address the question of why Karimov’s ideas changed, which is beyond the scope and purpose of this research. This article will focus on the content of the ideas, rather than why they changed.

11 Using the keywords of “migrant” (migrant) and “migration” (migratsiia), I searched all of Karimov’s published works in Russian between 1996-2007 that are available on the official website.

12 I searched presidential addresses on the official website of the President of Tajikistan, using the keywords of “migration” and “миграция” (migration in Russian). The search results revealed that Rahmon discussed the issue of migration in his annual addresses in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2015, and 2016.

13 The Official Website of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, search keyword “migration,” accessed March 23, 2023,

14 The Official Website of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, search keyword “migration,” accessed March 23, 2023,

15 Kluczewska and Korneev (2021) divide Tajikistan’s emigration policy into four periods: laissez-faire (1990s – mid-2000s), proactive (mid-2000s – late 2000s), messy (late 2000s – early 2010s), and reactive (mid-2010s – present).

16 For instance, according to a government official in the Tajik Migration Service, every year the number of workers that left the country via private recruitment agencies ranged between 4,000 and 12,000, and considering the scale of entire labor emigration it was a “drop in the ocean.” (FIDH and ADC memorial 2014, 38). The state agencies also sent a small number of workers (ILO and IOM 2009, 9; Kluczewska 2021, 4473).

Table. 1. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s Emigration Policy Comparison8
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