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Russia: Putin's Repatriation Scheme Off To Slow Start

Russia's much-heralded repatriation program hasn't resulted in flood of new passport holders (ITAR-TASS) April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On June 22, 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree initiating a ambitious six-year program designed to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of some of the estimated 30 million Russians living abroad, both in the CIS and further afield.

The program, meant to counter Russia's demographic crisis, officially entered its active phase on January 1 of this year. But Russia's regions still seem unwilling, or unprepared, to accept large numbers of newcomers.

Additionally, it appears that only a few hundred people have applied for repatriation, despite promises of receiving Russian citizenship within six months of their return..

Estimates Fall Far Short

Russian government officials had predicted that at least 100,000 people would apply for repatriation this year, and that a few million would have voluntarily returned "home" by 2012.

But although the first repatriates were expected in March, by mid-April not a single newcomer had settled in Russia.

On January 22, the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily reported that nearly one month after the beginning of the repatriation plan, only 13 people had applied for resettlement in Siberia's Irkutsk Oblast. In the central Tambov Oblast, authorities say they are currently ready to accept 200 families, all from Kyrgyzstan. The "Amurskaya pravda" daily reported on January 31 that the southeastern Amur Oblast was anticipating as few as 300 people by the end of the year.

Putin says his plan is meant to help revive the Russian economy and compensate for the country's staggering demographic crisis -- high mortality rates and low birth rates are believed to be draining the Russian population of some 700,000 people a year. But, in the opinion of some commentators, the scheme has political aims as well.

"If in past centuries Russia has expanded through the amassing of new territories, the only way it has to remain a state today is to assemble peoples. And of course it would be better if those peoples were capable of integrating the country's economy and accepting our habits, traditions, and culture," the president of the Eurasia Heritage Foundation think tank, Yelena Yatsenko, wrote in the December 26, 2006, issue of "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

Putin's program specifically targets Russian "compatriots" outside Russia. There has been considerable confusion about what is meant by the term. Reports from Central Asia indicate that some believe the program applies to all former Soviet citizens regardless of their ethnicity. But the Russian government, which in the past months has increased efforts to deport non-Russian immigrants, clearly sees ethnic Russians as the program's priority targets. Regional officials also appear to indicate that they are looking first and foremost for ethnic Russians and their family members, who may or may not be Russian.

Putin's decree designated 12 pilot federal subjects to take part in the repatriation scheme. Those are the Khabarovsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Primorsky krais; and the Amur, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Kaluga, Lipetsk, Novosibirsk, Tambov, Tver, and Tyumen oblasts.

Those regions, in turn, have been divided into three categories. The first one includes strategic border areas experiencing demographic losses. The second is made of regions whose large investment projects require an additional workforce. The third category comprises regions whose economies are developing steadily but whose general populations are declining.

Limited Capacity

Since the publication of Putin's decree, a number of other federal subjects (Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Okrug, Altai Krai, and the Kursk, Ulyanovsk, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd, Chita, Sverdlovsk, and Leningrad oblasts) have applied to take part in the repatriation program.

Yet, with the noticeable exception of the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, which plans to admit up to 300,000 newcomers by 2012, none of these regions seems ready to accept large numbers of repatriates.

Although its population has dwindled by an estimated 240,000 people in the past 12 years, Irkutsk Oblast has said that it will take no more than 5,000 returnees by 2012, including 570 this year, the regional "SM-nomer odin" weekly reported on January 25.

Beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Russian government had also sought potential repatriates in Germany, Israel, and the United States.

On January 22, the "Tambovsky kurier" weekly reported that Tambov Oblast, whose population is dwindling by 15,000 people a year, had pledged to accept only 20,500 repatriates by 2012 -- and as few as 1,500 this year, including the 200 families from Kyrgyzstan.

In most cases, it's not entirely clear where the repatriates, if there are any, will be coming from.

Russia's ambassador to Dushanbe, Ramazan Abdulatipov, earlier this month claimed that more than 4,000 ethnic Russians with Tajik citizenship were willing to "return home."

Authorities in Krasnoyarsk Oblast's Pirovsky Raion say they are expecting dozens of ethnic Russians from a village in Uzbekistan's Samarkand region who will be offered work as doctors, schoolteachers, agronomists, or other skilled professions. However, the news agency reported last month that no one in the regional village of Bagizagan seemed aware of the repatriation program and that most ethnic Russian residents had left the area on their own long ago.

The agency also quoted officials with Samarkand's two Russian cultural centers as saying the implementation of Putin's repatriation program would probably not start before the second half of this year. Those officials implicitly blamed Russia's Federal Migration Service for the delay, saying it had not yet opened an office in Uzbekistan.

Beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Russian government had also sought potential repatriates in Germany, Israel, and the United States. But it is uncertain if any Russians have accepted the Kremlin's offer to return.

Nor is it certain that Russia's regions are prepared to accept a major influx of returnees, should they suddenly appear. Lack of funding appears to be the main reason cited by regional authorities to explain their unwillingness to accept large flows of immigrants -- at least during the initial phase of the plan.

The Money Issue

The Russian government has pledged 17 billion rubles ($635 million) -- including 4.6 billion rubles this year -- on the resettlement program.

The amount of money allotted to each of the 12 pilot regions varies according to their importance -- the more strategic it is, the more subsidies it can expect from the federal budget.

Other regions will have to cover most of the expenses themselves. In February, the Republic of Buryatia cited the anticipated costs as one of the two reasons -- along with its high unemployment rate -- for its refusal to take part in the program.

With a few exceptions, job opportunities offered potential repatriates look slim. Some local administrations -- such as the one in Lipetsk Oblast -- have even made it clear they will accept only those applicants whose professional skills are a match for the needs of the regional job market.

Other administrations have made the repatriates' professional skills a prerequisite to their obtaining Russian citizenship. Voronezh Oblast official Aleksandr Korobeinikov told the "Komsomolskaya pravda v Chernozyome" daily on January 29 that only people who have no criminal record and "whose education and professional skills meet the region's needs" would be granted citizenship.

On January 31, the "Lipetskiye izvestiya" weekly quoted regional migration officer Irina Tsimbal as saying that access to the job market would be the main problem awaiting the new residents of Lipetsk Oblast.

That same day, the "Moskovsky komsomolets v Volgograde" weekly reported that the 5,000 repatriates the oblast administration was ready to take would be offered only jobs that have been vacant for more than six months.

Next stop -- Kaliningrad? (RFE/RL)

The Regnum news agency on March 12 said only three Kaliningrad companies had so far expressed readiness to hire repatriates.

Former regional official Oleg Pavlishin in February questioned Kaliningrad Oblast's capacity to absorb 300,000 new residents. According to Pavlishin, the exclave already has 180,000 unemployed adults -- more than one-fourth of its active population. Another 40,000 longtime residents are on a housing waiting list.

Local authorities are not only free to select applicants according to their professional background, they are also able to decide where the newcomers should be resettled.

Most of the 2,000 people who have officially applied for resettlement in Kaliningrad have expressed a desire to live either in the exclave's main city, or on the Baltic Sea coast. But Regnum on February 16 quoted regional minister Mikhail Plyukhin as saying that at least two-thirds of the repatriates would be sent to the region's easternmost areas, where the demand for skilled workers is reportedly the highest.

Lack Of Incentives

Under the repatriation scheme, all newcomers will have an obligation to live and work at least two years in their new home region, or reimburse the cost of their repatriation.

Those and other conditions imposed on potential applicants -- such as the obligation to bear the cost of the resettlement of any disabled relatives, or to be tested for AIDS, tuberculosis, or drug use -- may explain why Putin's call has so far apparently failed to attract large numbers of ethnic Russians.

Analyst Yatsenko noted in December that the repatriation scheme came too late and had too few economic incentives.

"Most of our active compatriots have already moved to countries with a more favorable economic and political environment," she said.

Another deterrent for potential repatriates is the apparent reluctance of many Russians to accept newcomers.

The Moscow-based VTsIOM polling institute in 2006 conducted a survey that showed that only a slight majority of respondents (54 percent) approved of Putin's initiative.

Another 49 percent said they believed Russia should accept repatriates only if it would be economically profitable. In rural areas, only 37 percent of respondents said they were ready to accept newcomers.

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