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Russia: Repatriation Plan Appeals To Few Ethnic Russians

Visitors welcome (AFP) The first year of an extended program to repatriate ethnic Russians living abroad has failed to produce the wave of immigrants that proponents touted ahead of its approval.

Kremlin officials were bullish in 2006 when President Vladimir Putin unveiled the ambitious plan.

Early backers had predicted that tens of thousands of people would resettle in Russia in the first months of the six-year project, helping curb Russia's staggering demographic crisis.

They said some 100,000 repatriates would be lured in short order to the 12 pilot regions spearheading the repatriation program. But within months of the January 2007 launch, first-year estimates fell to 50,000, and then to 25,000. By year-end, just 143 ethnic-Russian families had picked up stakes and made the move to Russia.

Official figures show that 13 families settled in Russia's western Lipetsk Oblast. Another 110 members of the Dukhobor religious minority emigrated from Georgia to central Tambov Oblast, and fewer than 200 people moved to Russia's Kaliningrad exclave. Russia's Regnum news agency quoted a Krasnoyarsk Krai labor official as saying in December that two single men were the only immigrants to the region in the course of the year.

Putin's plan is primarily intended to help counter high mortality rates and low birthrates that are believed to be draining the Russian population of some 700,000 people a year.

Government officials also expressed optimism that the project would progressively squeeze foreign migrant workers out of Russia's labor market. Under new immigration quotas released last week, just 1.8 million foreigners will be legally authorized to work in Russia this year, compared to 6 million in 2007.

But Russian authorities may find it extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to achieve the project's objectives.

"All pessimistic predictions regarding [the repatriation plan] have come true," wrote the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" daily on December 19. "The first year of implementation has clearly demonstrated that our former Soviet fellow citizens do not want to be repatriated under the conditions set by the Russian authorities."

Red Tape And Local Resistance

Government officials refuse to acknowledge failure. Federal Migration Service Director Konstantin Romodanovsky recently said he expects some 90,000 people to move to Russia and for another 59 regions to join the federal repatriation program in 2008.

But those numbers are already looking unrealistic.

Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" newspaper noted on January 11 that Siberia's Irkutsk Oblast, which last year offered to take some 9,000 repatriates, has so far received only three applications. Not a single potential repatriate has applied for resettlement in the Far Eastern Amur Oblast, which was expecting some 300 people last year. Both the Irkutsk and Amur oblasts are among the 12 pilot regions designated by Putin.

Vadim Gustov, the chairman of the State Duma's CIS Affairs Committee, blames the belated implementation of Putin's repatriation plan primarily on state bureaucracy. In comments made to "Vremya novostei" in December, he said no genuine recruitment campaign could be conducted among ethnic Russians until after the necessary official documentation related to the program became available in September.

Although the first repatriates were expected nine months ago, the Federal Migration Service -- the agency responsible for implementing the program -- did not open offices abroad until later in the year.

The fact that each pilot region had to draft its own repatriation program and send it to the federal government for approval created additional delays. Although Kaliningrad authorities had finalized their program as early as November 2006, they did not get Moscow's go-ahead to take repatriates in until late May.

But Russia's traditional red tape is not the only problem.

In an article published in the latest issue of the diplomatic "Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn'" monthly magazine, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin noted that regional authorities "are not fully prepared to accept repatriates" and that the necessary conditions for an massive influx of immigrants are still to be met.

Some 14 regions have refused to take part in the federal repatriation program, arguing that they already had many immigrants.

In other regions, local administration officials cite high unemployment rates, scarce funding, and the difficulty to accommodate newcomers to explain their reluctance to accept large numbers of repatriates -- at least in the first stage of the program.

Not Everyone's Welcome

The Russian government has slated 17 billion rubles (approximately $700 million) for the resettlement program to help migrants meet resettlement costs and assist them during the first months of their new lives. It is also designed to help the 12 pilot regions accommodate the newcomers. Other regions wishing to take part in the program will have to cover most of the expenses themselves.

Although would-be migrants have been promised passports, working permits, low-rate mortgages, and benefits, Putin's repatriation program offers them few incentives.

With a few exceptions, job opportunities offered potential newcomers look slim, and most regional administrations have made it clear that they will accept only those applicants whose professional skills match the needs of their respective job markets. Sometimes, authorities have warned that newcomers will be offered only jobs that local residents do not want.

The Russian-based, Central Asian information website in July reported that job vacancies in Kaliningrad Oblast were mostly in the farming and shipbuilding industries, whereas the majority of those potential repatriates who had expressed an interest in moving to the region were seeking employment in the oil sector, or the service industries.

Repatriates may not only find it difficult to obtain suitable jobs -- they are also likely to experience housing problems. "Vremya novostei" reported that most of those ethnic Russians who settled in Kaliningrad Oblast immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union still live in precarious conditions, sometimes in remote rural areas.

If local authorities are free to select applicants according to their professional skills, they also decide where to accommodate the newcomers.

Most of those would-be migrants who are considering resettling in Kaliningrad Oblast have reportedly expressed a desire to live either in the exclave's main city, or on the Baltic Sea coast. But local administration officials have warned that at least two-thirds of the repatriates would be sent to the region's easternmost areas, where they say the demand for skilled workers is the highest.

Russian analysts agree that there are relatively few potential repatriates left in the world. Most of those ethnic Russians who wanted to settle in Russia have done so on their own a long time ago, while those who could afford it have moved to economically more prosperous countries. As for those who still live in former Soviet republics, their life is not so bad that they would consider abandoning it for an uncertain future.

In his recent interview with "Vremya novostei," State Duma Deputy Gustov admitted that the vast majority of potential repatriates fear they might be abandoned to themselves once they agree to resettle in Russia.

"No matter how cheap the train 'tickets' to Russia are, they've come very late," political analyst Valery Byzhytovich commented last week in "Rossiiskaya gazeta." "For many of those who were dreaming of returning to their historical homeland during the first years that followed the collapse of the USSR, the train has already gone."

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