Lira, a 29-year-old Russian Jew, left Russia in 1999 for Jerusalem, where she now works in a jewelry shop. She is happy in Israel and has no intention of returning to Russia, but she says she would nonetheless like to keep this option open -- that's why she welcomes the repatriation plan.
"Actually, it's a beautiful step. For the first time, they've thought about their citizens, even former citizens, because Russia has never cared for people," she says.
"There are people who come back [to Russia], you never know how life will turn out. Russia is still our motherland, we cannot be separated from it," Lira adds. "I am linked to this country and I love it, so it's great to have this option, to know that it exists, that you can return under certain laws, and not merely as a person whom everyone has forgotten."
Help Through The Bureaucratic Maze
Besides offering cash and social benefits to repatriates, the program will also help those who gave up their Russian citizenship get it back.
Like many emigres, Lira has managed to retain her Russian citizenship and does not require a visa to visit her friends and relatives in Russia. But those who have lost their Russian passport face a bureaucratic maze in order to travel to Russia, let alone have their citizenship returned.
Speaking on June 27 to a meeting of Russian ambassadors in Moscow, President Putin stressed the need to ease citizenship procedures and called for the speedy implementation of the repatriation scheme.
"We assumed that the current decisions were sufficient in this sphere. But strangely, when talking to citizens via near-live television link, I was surprised to find out that some of our compatriots were offended by our position, the way in which we organize work with them abroad, that they were stumped by our actions regarding the extremely difficult conditions to obtain Russian citizenship," Putin said. "This is strange, because Russia needs an inflow of immigrants."
Calling Russians Back To Russia
According to official figures, Russia's population, now 143 million, shrinks by some 700,000 people each year due to high mortality and a low birthrate. The authorities have long been trying to bring back ethnic Russians from outside Russia to help reverse the trend.
The scheme approved this week, however, makes no direct reference to ethnic Russians. A Kremlin spokesman said the plan targeted "holders of Russian passports, Russian-speakers with dual citizenship, or people who are planning to apply for Russian citizenship."
Putin has ordered the creation of a special commission to run the program. In a parallel move, the Federal Migration Service plans to open branches in all former Soviet republics, the United States, Germany, and Israel to attract potential repatriates.
In People's Interest?
Demographers, however, are cautious about the repatriation plan. Andrei Volkov, a leading demographer at the Russian State Statistics Committee, says the plan could slightly improve the country's demographic picture, but only if the state carefully studies the needs of the population it wishes to repatriate.
wish is enough, because the interests of the people have to be taken
into account." -- Volkov
"The project is very good, but I'm really not sure that [the state's] wish is enough, because the interests of the people have to be taken into account," Volkov says. "One must determine who is considered a compatriot -- there are various categories, some left long ago, others recently, some have grown-up children who've adapted to their new country. This is far from being a simple problem."
The scheme has also been met with skepticism by a number of ethnic Russians who have lived, or still live, abroad. Oleg Panfilov, a 49-year-old ethnic Russian journalist who heads Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, says the plan is doomed to failure.
Panfilov was born in Tajikistan and fled to Russia in 1992 during the Tajik civil war. He says that most ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics consider these countries their homes and are unlikely to be lured back to Russia.
"Now, the Russians who live in former Soviet countries have already settled down there, they don't particularly want to go anywhere -- maybe just pensioners, but the Russian authorities probably don't need pensioners," Panfilov says. "Russians who lived or live in former Soviet territory are a little different. These are people who tried to live in another culture, they are hard-working, they have different values, different views."
But even the elderly may not be that eager to take up Putin's offer to return to the motherland. Take, for instance, Gennady Rotushenko, an elderly ethnic Russian photojournalist who moved to the Tajik capital Dushanbe during the Soviet era.
"Peace and harmony have returned to Tajikistan, and nobody is kicking us out," he says. "Here we can live, work, and lead a normal life. So why go back to Russia? I'm over 60 years old, so going to Russia is not an issue for me today. There is just no point."
Click on the map to see how many Russians live in each of the former Soviet republics.
RUSSIANS OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA: A total of some 30 million ethnic Russians remain in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including large diasporas in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This historical legacy has often been a source of tension between Russia and its neighbors. "Support for the rights of compatriots abroad is a crucial goal," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address. "It cannot be subject to a diplomatic or political bargaining. Those who do not respect, observe, or ensure human rights have no right to demand that human rights be respected by others."
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