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Russia: Immigration Likely To Increase, Mitigating Population Deficit

  • Victor Yasmann

Russian demographers have long foreseen the country's population crisis. A low birthrate combined with a high mortality rate means that in 2006 the number of pensioners will exceed the number of young men starting their working lives.

The gap is almost certain to grow in the future. According to UN experts, the Russian economy needs up to 2 million new workers every year; Russian experts put the figure nearer to 700,000.

To address the population deficit, demographers have advised the Russian government to expatriate ethnic Russians from the CIS and other countries, and legalize non-Russians who are currently living and working illegally in Russia.

Not everyone agrees. Pro-Kremlin commentator Dmitrii Kiselev, speaking on RTR on 7 November, said there are not enough ethnic Russians in the world for this plan to be successful. And measures to stimulate the birth rate inside the country will not help either, he added.

Kiselev claimed the Kremlin sees no alternative to regulated mass immigration. He quoted President Vladimir Putin, who at a meeting of Russia's Security Council in March said: "Today's most important goal is the stimulation of the immigration process. The demographic situation in the country has dictated the necessity of calculated measures to attract foreign labor to the Russian economy."

The most viable group of potential labor migrants is the Chinese, primarily because of overpopulation in some Chinese provinces and the countries' extensive common border. "Whether we like it or not, more and more Chinese are coming to Russia," Kiselev said. "According to a recent demographic study commissioned by 'Kommersant-Vlast' magazine, more and more Chinese migrants are coming to Russia and this year their number will reach 500,000 -- both legals and illegals."

If that trend continues, by the middle of the 21st century, Russia could be home to 10 million ethnic Chinese. That would make them the second-largest ethnic group in the country after Russians. Such an influx could spark xenophobia among the local population.

Most Chinese migrants in Russia tend to be either unskilled seasonal workers or small-time traders. Duma Deputy Otari Arshba (Unified Russia), an Interior Ministry migration expert, argued on 7 November that Russia needs to attract a more skilled Chinese workforce. He proposed the introduction of selective immigration for qualified workers and specialists modeled on the point system that was adopted in Canada. Despite some hostility toward foreigners, he said, Russian society should be able to absorb the newcomers.

At a press conference in Moscow on 8 November, Vyacheslav Postavnin, the head of the department overseeing labor migration at Russia's Federal Migration Service, announced plans to introduce an amnesty for illegal migrants in 2006. Postavnin noted that there are two ways to deal with the illegal migrants: deport them, which is costly, or allow them to stay legally in Russia.

The proposed amnesty would affect 1 million people, while the total number of illegal migrants in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union is estimated at between 7 million and 14 million. Eighty percent of all illegal immigrants come from CIS countries, with which Russia generally has porous borders. In addition to the CIS and China, many illegal immigrants come from Southeast Asia and Africa.

Popular Hostility

Immigrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus have increasingly become targets of physical and verbal abuse -- not only from nationalist groups, but even from mainstream politicians. A negative public attitude to newcomers from the south has been fortified by what many commentators have described as government-sponsored Islamaphobia.

The recent riots in France have added fuel to this fire. Migration chief Postavnin recently called "the Islamic factor" the main reason behind the riots in France. Aleksandr Privalov, a columnist for "Ekspert" magazine, said on 8 November that "most of the rioters [in France] are young Islamists," Radio Mayak reported. It was not just a question of "social protest," Privalov said, but the "Islamist element prevailed." Dmitrii Rogozin, the leader of Russia's nationalist Motherland party, said on 8 November that he has demanded that his Russian counterpart, Rashid Nurgaliev, take "preemptive measures against potential rioters in Moscow," RIA-Novosti reported.

Such views have also made inroads into the world of fiction. A new bestseller by Elena Chudinova, "Mosque Notre Dame de Paris," imagines Paris in 2048 ruled by Shari'a laws. In the novel, Frenchmen who refuse to convert to Islam are herded into ghettoes.

"A religious war between Christianity and Islam is not only inevitable, but has already begun," Interfax quoted Chudinova as saying on 8 November. The same day, "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote that in the Russian imagination there are graphic images of migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus fighting against the Chinese for influence in Siberia. "Unfortunately it is not a fantasy, but a bitter reality," the newspaper noted.

Many disagree with such catastrophic predictions, of course. At the Moscow news conference on 8 November, Postavnin said that race riots could not happen in Russia, as "it is a tolerant country."
RFE/RL Russia Report

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