Monday, Nov 08, 2004
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By Vladimir Radyuhin
THE SOVIET Union may have been dead for 13 years but as far as Russians are concerned it has never been more alive. They have never seen so many Tajiks, Azeris, Moldovans and Ukrainians walk the streets of big cities and small townships across Russia from the Baltic Sea in the West to the Pacific coast in the Far East. The former compatriots build houses, sell fruit, drive public transport buses, and do a myriad other jobs for which Russians have no taste or ask a higher pay.
With the Russian economy growing at a healthy seven per cent a year, it is an attractive destination for millions of workers from many post-Soviet states where economic growth is not so vibrant. Officials put the number of migrant labour in Russia at four million to five million, a majority of them from the former Soviet Union. Unofficial estimates are at least twice as high. Russia offers a source of livelihood to three million to four million Ukrainians, two million to three million of Azerbaijan's eight million population, one in three working-age Georgians and Armenians, and hundreds of thousands of workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Belarus.
The "fraternal family of nations," as Communist ideologues used to describe the Soviet Union, has re-assembled itself on Russian soil, even though it is no longer so fraternal. Migrant labour has proved a mixed blessing for Russia. It helps alleviate an acute demographic crisis and sustain economic growth, but also creates dangerous ethnic and social tensions.
Russia's population has declined by more than five million over the past 12 years and keeps falling at a rate of about 700,000 a year, according to the State Statistical Committee. The Ministry of Economic Development estimates that Russia may lose half of its 144 million people within the next 60 to 100 years if no radical measures are taken to reverse the trend.
The demographic situation has been aggravated by large-scale emigration from Russia during the years of rocky economic reforms, with an estimated seven million leaving the country between 1991 and 2002. The outflow was initially balanced by the influx of millions of ethnic Russians who fled instability and economic ruin in former Soviet republics. But their migration to Russia has dwindled to a trickle recently, partly because many have adjusted to life in the newly independent states and partly because the Russian Government has failed to provide any attractive resettlement programmes.
The Government has also been slow to react to the growing tide of migrant labour. In the absence of effective government regulation, immigration has been chaotic, flooding Moscow and the European part of Russia, but leaving vast areas of Siberia short of labour. Monolithic migrant communities, often cemented by a strong criminal component, have virtually ousted Russians from some sectors of the economy. Azeris and Armenians, for example, have taken over wholesale and retail trade in Russia in fruit and vegetables, construction materials, and many other commodities, setting monopoly prices and provoking deep resentment among local population. Authorities, who often have a cut in the business, just look the other way.
"If the Government continues to turn a blind eye to this process of uncontrolled immigration, Russians will eventually be ousted from trade, banking, hotel and other profitable businesses, and will be left to do low-paid or hard manual work," says Yuri Godin of the Foreign Economy Studies Centre. In a poll conducted earlier this year in Moscow, this problem topped the list of grievances.
Migrants have contributed to high crime rates in Russia. Tajiks, for example, have become major drug haulers from Afghanistan to Russia. Residents of Yekaterenburg, a regional capital in Siberia, which lies on the trunk route of drug traffickers, held an anti-narcotics rally in May to demand a visa regime for Tajikistan. Last year Tajiks accounted for over 90 per cent of all drug couriers intercepted at the Koltsovo international airport in Yekaterenburg.
The influx of millions of non-Russians has also led to the rise of violent racist movements in Russia, with many people blaming their poverty and unemployment on immigrants. Neo-Nazi skinhead gangs are mushrooming all over Russia, terrorising non-Russians from the former Soviet Union, as well as nationals from India and other Asian and African countries. Racist attacks under the slogan "Russia for Russians" are getting increasingly brazen and violent.
A nine-year-old girl from Tajikistan was knifed to death in St. Petersburg in February; an African student was murdered in Voronezh the same month; a 50-year-old Azerbaijani was beaten up in Nizhnii Novgorod in May and died later in hospital; a 19-year-old student from Vietnam was killed in St. Petersburg in October; an Uzbek was beaten to death in a Moscow suburb in October. About 20 murders fuelled by ethnic hatred were reported across Russia in the first six months of this year. The skinheads' most outrageous crime this year was to shoot and kill Nikolai Girenko, a 64-year-old Russian ethnographer and anthropologist who dedicated himself to fighting neo-Nazis in court.
Human rights organisations estimate the number of skinheads in Russia at between 35,000 and 55,000 and rapidly rising. Russian police have all too often dismissed racist attacks as hooliganism. It was not until the President, Vladimir Putin, earlier this year called the attention of the Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, to racially motivated crimes, that the latter admitted that ultranationalist groups were a real problem.
However, the Kremlin still refuses to acknowledge a link between growing racist extremism and the lack of a coherent immigration policy. Job quotas for migrant labour introduced last year have failed to regulate migration processes and protect local jobs. The ridiculously low quota of about 600,000 for this year has fallen far below the demand. There are also many vested interests in Russia who have a stake in keeping labour migration illegal. Employers prefer hiring illegal migrants because they are willing to work for much lower pay than local labour and do not ask for a social security net. In the construction business, for example, illegal workers help cut project costs by two-thirds. Even Kremlin contractors are known to use illegal workers.
Illegal migration has grown into a multi-million criminal business. Last year authorities in the Volgograd region in central Russia busted a labour traffic racket from Tajikistan. Trainloads of Tajiks were brought to work like slaves on local farms. At one point investigators stumbled on a farm where over a hundred Tajik children worked from dawn to dusk practically for free. Illegal labour migrants are also the target of constant harassing and fleecing by police who regularly raid construction sites and hostels to check registration and work-permit papers.
Yet, for all its negative aspects, labour migration from the former Soviet states is a big boon for Russia. Apart from filling a shortage of workforce, it gives Moscow a powerful policy lever in dealing with its ex-Soviet neighbours and pushing a re-integration agenda. Many newly independent states critically depend on the money their nationals working in Russia send back to their families. According to government estimates, in 2002 migrant workers from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia employed in the Moscow region alone took back home about $10 billion, more than their annual budgets.
When its President, Imomali Rakhmonov, baulked at approving the establishment of a Russian military base in Tajikistan earlier this year, Moscow threatened to deport illegal Tajik workers from Russia. This would spell a catastrophe for Tajikistan and the base agreement was promptly signed. An easing of travel rules for millions of Ukrainian workers in Russia sanctioned by Mr. Putin on the eve of Ukraine's presidential election last week helped shore up the faltering campaign by the pro-Russian candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.
Immigration also has a strategic dimension for Russia. Average population density in Russia is 8.5 persons per square km, and in the Far East it is just over 1 person per square km, hundreds of times less than in China across the border. Further depopulation poses a threat to Russia's territorial integrity.
"From economic and geopolitical point of view it is a catastrophe to have so sparse a population on such a vast territory," says academician Anatoly Vishnevsky of the Centre for Demography and Human Ecology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russia must accommodate 700,000 to 1,000,000 migrants a year, primarily from former Soviet republics, just to maintain its population at present level. Such a massive injection of immigrants is fraught with great risks.
"To avoid the dangers we need a system of measures for adapting and integrating migrants, and it yet to be developed," the scholar says.
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