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Municipal workers at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia. Municipal workers at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, June 26, 2018 (AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko). The role of immigrants in the labor force is an unresolved question of Russia's immigration policy.

Russia Needs Immigrants but Lacks a Coherent Immigration Policy

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on immigration policy around the world.

Like many other advanced economies, Russia faces serious demographic challenges in the coming decades. According to government projections, the population is expected to shrink by 2.5 million people by 2035, and the active working-age population will likely decrease by 3.1 million people. Russian federal and state authorities recognize the need to hold these trends in check by keeping the country’s doors open, but immigrants, particularly migrant workers, often have trouble accessing social services and must navigate a complex patchwork of rules and regulations in order to stay in Russia. In an interview with WPR, Vladimir Mukomel, a migration expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, discusses the “dizzying reversals” in Russia’s immigration policy and what officials can do to make the country friendlier to immigrants.

World Politics Review: How did immigration policies change in Russia following the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union?

Vladimir Mukomel: Simply put, the Soviet Union had no immigration policy. The number of foreigners willing to move there was insignificant.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by bursts of ethno-political conflicts in the newly independent states. During the 1990s, there was a massive exodus of the Russian-speaking population from these former Soviet republics, which caused the population of Russia to grow by 4.2 million people, two-thirds of whom were ethnic Russians. This huge influx of migrants was a serious challenge for Russia, but it soon developed an orderly migration policy framework, with a system of legal principles and organizational support.

By the 2000s, cases of forced migration had sharply decreased, but migrant workers from Central Asia were flooding the Russian labor market. Central Asian migrants have occupied certain niches in the labor market, such as retail, construction and household services, and as visible minorities, they often encounter xenophobic attitudes.

The key problem with Russia’s migration policy is a lack of definite expression of its aims. There is no consensus with respect to Russia’s long-term development strategy. Some argue that Russia should rely on its ethnic Russian core and values of Orthodox Christianity. Adherents of this view favor restrictions on immigration. The alternative position is that Russia needs immigrants in order to serve its long-term demographic, economic and political interests. This ongoing debate has caused a number of dizzying reversals in migration policy over the past two decades. Policies were restrictive from 2002 until 2005, and again from 2008 to 2012, but the periods from 2006 to 2007, and again from 2013 to 2016, were relatively liberal.

WPR: In more recent years, as countries in Western Europe have tightened their border controls, Russia has appeared more open to immigrants. Is Moscow mainly interested in attracting workers, or are other issues at play?

Mukomel: The shrinking of Russia’s population overall, and especially the working-age population, is inevitable. According to the median forecast provided by the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, the population is expected to decrease by 2.5 million people by 2035, a roughly 1.7 percent drop. The active working-age population will likely see an even steeper decline of 3.1 million people.

The authorities are aware of the need to hold this trend in check by facilitating foreign access to the Russian labor market. Innovations in migration laws that came into force in 2015 were aimed at solving these problems, albeit with a preference on the part of authorities to see so-called compatriots—predominantly those of Slavic origin, like ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians—as immigrants. As a result, it became easier for citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a bloc of former Soviet republics, to work in Russia.

At the same time, requirements that immigrants must meet with regard to command of Russian language, knowledge of legal basics, and familiarity with Russian culture became more stringent and the cost of obtaining a work permit increased sharply. In 2017 and 2018, there was a further tightening of immigration policy, with stricter requirements for registration and compliance with Russian laws that are still in effect today. One such rule dictates that foreigners can be deported for repeatedly violating traffic regulations.

Russian regional officials are also important actors in migration policy. If the federal authorities are rather reserved in their sympathies and antipathies to different migrant minorities, then regional authorities are free to consider anti-migrant attitudes of their constituents, often using any chance they get to demonstrate their control of the labor market and forbid migrants to engage in various types of economic activity. They do this primarily through the setting of local rules and regulations.

WPR: Are immigrants to Russia generally able to adapt well and integrate into Russian society? What obstacles do they face?

Mukomel: For Russia, immigration is not a matter of choice. It is a matter of necessity, in order to sustain the population. But a massive influx of immigrants who speak different languages and have different habits, cultures and norms poses a serious challenge in terms of integrating those migrants in Russian society. A sizeable share of foreigners in Russia are long-term migrants, who live in Russia permanently with their families for many years and actually are integrated into Russian society. We also have to consider the fact that most migrants have no access to social services and benefits in Russia, excluding a small group with permanent residence permits.

A complex system of regulations and labor market access rules has evolved in Russia. How immigrants can move around inside the country, where they live, and their access to the Russian labor market are determined by their residence status and their country of citizenship. Citizens from countries that are in the Commonwealth of Independent States enjoy certain preferences, as do EU citizens, and Belarusians enjoy rights similar to Russian citizens.

What is needed most are reforms that would allow immigrants to reliably access social services like education and health care, as well as reforms to the education system and judicial system to make them friendlier to immigrants. It is alarming that Russia’s new State Migration Policy Concept, which lays out the goals, tasks and key priorities for the country’s migration policy from the period of 2019 until 2025, does not articulate the necessity of such reforms and ignores adaptation and integration policy.