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Russia: Most Regions Unprepared For Repatriation Scheme

Russia is looking to boost its aging population (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) Russian President Vladimir Putin this summer initiated a package of incentives aimed at bringing ethnic Russians living abroad back to Russia. But the regions targeted as future homes for the anticipated repatriates say they are unprepared for a possible influx of new residents.

MOSCOW, September 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Putin's plan envisages repatriates flooding into underdeveloped regions in exchange for new work opportunities, housing loans, cash benefits, and other perks.

Under the program, repatriates will be able to chose between 12 so-called "pilot regions" located in Russia's Far East, its central Black Earth region, and Kaliningrad Oblast exclave.

These regions either have a dwindling population, border another country, or are home to major investment projects.

Vital Project

Yury Avdeyev, who heads the Institute of regional projects at the Far Eastern Center for Strategic Projects, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the repatriation scheme is vital for Russia's Far East.

"This program is extremely important for the whole Far East, because the population decrease that has been taking place for the past 15 years -- which represents as much as 1.3 million people -- has been a considerable loss for our region," Avdeyev said. "Attracting both compatriots and people from other Russian regions can change this situation."

All 12 regions were due to send federal authorities a request by September 1 indicating the number of repatriates they are ready to admit next year.

The Far Eastern Primorsky Krai, however, has failed to send a request, and neighboring Khabarovsk Krai is asking for as few as 2,000 repatriates.

And this is the case for nearly all 12 pilot regions.

Russian speakers demonstrating in Latvia (ITAR-TASS, file photo)

Most regional governments say a lack of funding and housing make them unable to take in large numbers of immigrants. The federal government is planning to allocate 17 billion rubles ($635 million) to the repatriation scheme, but a lot of the expenses are expected to be covered by regional governments.

Khabarovsk Krai's regional Economic Development and Trade Ministry has indicated that the 2,000 repatriates the region is ready to admit next year will not receive any of the cash payments promised by the program.

And, like most pilot regions, the local government has shifted the responsibility of housing repatriates to potential employers.

High Target

At this rate, Russia seems unlikely to meet its target of attracting some 100,000 repatriates in 2007, 40,000 of whom would be professionally active.

Two regions, however, are welcoming repatriates with open arms -- Tver Oblast and Russia's Baltic exclave, Kaliningrad Oblast.

Kaliningrad Oblast says it is ready to receive 10,000 Russian-speaking immigrants in 2007.

Tver Oblast Governor Dmitry Zelenin says his region is ready to provide 7,300 repatriates with benefits, housing assistance, and jobs with salaries of up to 25,000 rubles ($933) per month.

Tver, whose working population tends to move to nearby St. Petersburg and Moscow in search of professional opportunities and higher salaries, is in dire need of skilled workers.

Tver Oblast Governor Dmitry Zelenin (ITAR-TASS, file photo)

Interest, however, is not always mutual -- only 596 ethnic Russians living abroad have thus far officially asked to be relocated to Kaliningrad Oblast.

Vladimir Zharikhin, the deputy director of the CIS Institute in Moscow, says the repatriation program may have come a little too late.

"I think it is viable, but it is a little late. After all, mass migration problems were characteristic of the mid-1990s," Zharikhin said. "Those who wanted to move to Russia have already done so by now. Those who haven't come back have usually adapted [to their home country]."

Politically Savy

A number of observers have dismissed the program as a publicity coup for the authorities ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections due to take place in the next two years.

The scheme has also sparked concerns abroad.

While reports say it has generated great interest in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, the prospect of a large outflow of qualified professionals to Russia has been met with little enthusiasm in Ukraine in Kazakhstan -- which are home to large ethnic Russian populations.

The head of Ukraine's parliamentary commission for human rights, ethnic minorities and interethnic relations, Leonid Grach, recently told the Russian daily "Kommersant" that the departure of ethnic Russians would be, in his words, a "catastrophe for science, technology, and interethnic relations."

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