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Former USSR.: Analysis From Washington--The Russians Aren't Going Home

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics are not moving back to the Russian Federation as some politicians had predicted and as even more observers had feared.

Instead, they have overwhelmingly chosen to remain where they are, a pattern that reflects conditions in their countries of residence, conditions in Russia itself, and the difficulties facing anyone who chooses to move from the former to the latter.

On Wednesday, Russia's Federal Migration Service reported that only 700,000 people, most of them ethnic Russians, had moved to the Russian Federation from the other former Soviet republics in 1996. That figure was down from 960,000 in 1995 and 1.1 million in 1994.

These numbers almost certainly understate the totals in each case. Various specialists on migration have noted that these Russian figures include only those who have been officially registered, something that many migrants cannot achieve.

But if the specific numbers are problematic, their size relative to the total ethnic Russian population living abroad and the trend line they imply for that group's behavior in the future suggest that many earlier predictions about them were and will remain false.

Prior to the collapse of the USSR, for instance, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev regularly warned that the disintegration of his country would lead many of the 60 million people living beyond the borders of their ethnic republics to return home.

Such flows, he implied, would not only destabilize all the post-Soviet states but would shake Europe as a whole to its foundations.

Gorbachev's predictions on this point did not prove true. But after the demise of the Soviet Union, many in both Moscow and the West continued to suggest that the 25.4 million ethnic Russians now living abroad would return home.

Ethnic Russians would do so, these politicians and analysts said, because of the supposedly discriminatory policies many non-Russian governments were visiting upon ethnic Russians and because of the greater opportunities such people would have in Russia itself.

But these predictions too have failed to materialize. On the one hand, fewer than one ethnic Russian in five has "gone home" to the Russian Federation in the five years since the collapse of the USSR.

And on the other, as the statistics released this week show, ever fewer ethnic Russians living in these countries are choosing to leave.

The reasons for these developments are three-fold.

First, most ethnic Russians in these countries have lived all or most of their lives there, and choosing to leave a place that has been home is difficult even when conditions are less than ideal.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of these ethnic Russians are citizens of the countries in which they live. And most are faring no worse economically or politically than the other citizens of these states.

Consequently, as various polls attest, ethnic Russians in these countries increasingly see their future in terms of the current countries of residence and not in terms of any past attachment to Russia.

Second, the Russian Federation is anything but inviting for those ethnic Russians who may be thinking about going there. The economic conditions in the Russian Federation are often worse than in the countries where potential migrants now live.

And the Russian government has been ambivalent about attracting them back. Some Russian officials have seen the continued presence of ethnic Russians in the non-Russian countries as useful adjunct to Moscow's foreign policy goals.

Even Russian nationalists who would like the ethnic Russians to return to compensate for the current demographic problems in Russia itself are worried about the potentially enormous costs of absorbing any significant number.

And third, the move itself is difficult in and of itself. Uprooting oneself and moving often thousands of miles is expensive, and those the most capable of bearing such expenses are the least interested in incurring them.

Such costs continue on arrival. Many migrants to the Russian Federation cannot find housing. Nearly a quarter of a million of those who have moved back in the last few years did not have housing at the end of 1996, according to official Russian statistics.

And even more of these migrants have not been able to find work comparable to their former employment or, in many cases, any work at all.

For all these reasons and many others, ethnic Russians are choosing to stay where they are and are likely to do so in the future.