Russia trying to resolve demographic problem through immigration

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) - The Russian government is making efforts to simplify immigration laws and approve the state program for providing assistance to voluntary immigration of ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics.

Together with the program for increasing the birth rate, these measures are aimed at counteracting the disastrous dwindling of Russia's working age population. How efficient will they be?

The new state immigration program provokes many questions. The document has been awaited for a long time. Many ethnic Russians who found themselves outside Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union would have been glad to move to Russia in the 1990s, if they had been offered assistance. However, abstract welcoming phrases did not fit in well with what their friends and relatives told them about immigrants who could not obtain citizenship, get employed or secure appropriate living standards for themselves and their children for years.

The gates seem to be opening now - immigrants will be able to receive housing, social benefits, their moving expenses will be covered and job opportunities will be provided.

Undoubtedly, Russia now looks attractive to ethnic Russians both from underdeveloped economies and successful countries. Today there are many immigrants in Russia who come from Central Asia, as well as former Soviet citizens who had emigrated to the U.S., Israel or Canada. All of them are lured by job opportunities, anything from street cleaning to opening their own businesses.

This situation is mostly typical of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The situation in the majority of Russian regions is different, but it is the provinces, not the big cities, that are short of labor force and population in general.

Who will volunteer to move, say, to Siberia or the Far East if they have no relatives or friends there, and at a time when residents of these regions are themselves moving to Central Russia?

This is why the new program has taken regions' needs into account. Twelve regions - the Krasnoyarsk, Primorye and Khabarovsk territories and the Amur, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Kaluga, Lipetsk, Novosibirsk, Tambov, Tver and Tyumen regions - were chosen as pioneers. But only those immigrants who volunteer to move to class A regions near the borders will be entitled to a full package of privileges.

The question is: are there jobs in the regions?

To clarify the situation the regional authorities will submit programs for the potential accommodation of immigrants and a financial benefits project to the government by September 1, 2006. They should present information on the number of employees, give lists of professions they need today and will need in the near future, and guarantee jobs, housing and social assistance. For example, the Tyumen Region is ready to accept thousands of professionals in the fields of tourism, culture and entertainment. The Tver Region is short of qualified workers, district doctors, general practitioners and nurses. The Irkutsk Region offers 14,000 jobs now, mostly in transportation and construction. The Kaliningrad Region is facing the same situation and could accommodate the largest number of migrants - up to 435,000 people for the duration of the program (until 2012). The situation will become clearer next fall when the program funding is sealed in the Russian budget.

It is not clear so far who is the target of the new immigration program. Back in 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the First Congress of Compatriots in Moscow: "A compatriot is not just a legal term, nor does it concern the person's status or privileges. This primarily refers to a person's choice and self-determination." However, when we talk about privileges, the definition has to be precise.

The Russian law "On citizenship" alone gives the legal definition of a compatriot. It says that three population groups belong to the category: first, Russian citizens living abroad, regardless of whether they are registered at consulates or not. Second, former Soviet citizens who had lived on the territory of today's Russian Federation before 1991, regardless of their ethnicity. And third, the descendants of those who had emigrated from Russia or the Soviet Union. However, the Federal Migration Service told RIA Novosti that ethnic groups who have historically lived in Russia are most likely to be allowed to immigrate. Those who have preserved the knowledge of the Russian language and culture will be given preference.

Ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics are supposed to be the first to return to Russia. According to the Federal Migration Service estimates, up to 20-25 million people are eligible for the program. Figures may be different in reality. Modest Kolerov, head of the Russian presidential department on interregional and cultural contacts with foreign countries, said the program could cover up to a million people.

Yet, no one can give exact forecasts today, since despite the evident advantages of the target program - people know beforehand where and why they are moving - the list of vacancies and regions excludes a number of potential immigrants. Certainly, they can use other accommodation options in Russia, including migration benefits, but the scope of the problem is much wider: will Russia be able to meet its demand for labor force?

On the one hand, there are still 18 million Russians in the former Soviet republics. But, according to expert estimates, the migration potential of eponymous and other nations in the CIS and the Baltic states will be no more than 6-7 million people by 2025. According to Zhanna Zaionchkovskaya, head of the population migration laboratory at the Institute of Economic Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the former Soviet republics could satisfy only about 50% of Russia's demand for labor force. During the period of up to 2026, the natural loss of working age population may total over 18 million people. "With the 67 million people currently employed in the Russian economy, the situation looks dangerous," Zaionchkovskaya said.

Evidently, the new state program will hardly solve Russia's demographic problems, even in the most optimistic outlooks. But at least the first attempt is being made to pay heed to the interests of people, along with those of the government, and many compatriots are satisfied with that.

"Ethnic Russians living in Estonia want to feel certain that they will be welcome in their homeland," said Sergei Sergeyev, head of the Estonian Union of Russian Compatriots, commenting on the state program. "People should know they will be given housing and perceived as full-fledged members of the community, not as refugees or immigrants," he said. Yury Ognev, chairman of the Council of the Samarkand Regional Department of the Russian Republican Cultural Center, agreed: "Many in the Russian community in Uzbekistan say Russia has at last turned to compatriots and is opening its doors to them. Now everybody will be able to change something in his or her life if necessary." The choice will depend on many aspects, including the program implementation, Russian economic growth in general and the situation in countries where compatriots live.

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