More Geopolitics, Less Xenophobia, Please: How the West Gets Russian Migration Policy Wrong

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Matt Crosston

Professor of Political Science at Bellevue University

In the current political climate between Russia and the United States it is difficult to find analyses on Russian politics not reflective of the larger disillusionment and semi-animosity pervading the overall relationship dynamic. Thus, when an American ‘Russian expert’ is asked about recent conversations in Moscow about controlling illegal or undocumented migration into and across Russia, more likely than not a lecture will ensue about violations of human rights, the inexorable rise of Russian nationalism and xenophobia, and, of course, the increasing desire of President Putin to bring more authoritarianism to the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, while aspects of all three of these issues can be force-fed into the migration/immigration topic, this would actually be doing a disservice to a more subtle understanding of the concerns not only facing the Russian Federation but the wider global community, especially the European Union. In reality, the factors of economics, geopolitics, and security are far more impactful for anyone wanting to understand the complex situation that is the Russian immigration debate.

How important is Russia for migrant workers? Despite arrogantly dismissive remarks made by President Obama not that long ago that no one tries to move to Moscow, the reality is that Russia remains an economic stabilizing hub for many citizens across the former Soviet Union, as the below chart on remittance flows indicate from the International Fund for Agricultural Development:


The above data (from 2014-2015) perhaps surprisingly shows to many in the West that it is the Russian Federation that ranks the highest in remittances at $20.7 billion. In relative terms the numbers are even more overwhelming: the UK, which ranks second at $17.1 billion, has a per capita GDP fully 50% higher than Russia. Also, these economic indicators sit as a bold refutation of anecdotal evidence often taken as indisputable facts in the West: while American and EU leaders deride the ‘unattractiveness’ of Russia for non-Russian laborers and immigrants in general, it is clear that many from Central Asia and the Caucasus are remaining in Russia. In the end, it seems that economic concerns are far more powerful motivators than so-called cultural ones. Indeed, perhaps Russia’s remittance numbers remained high compared to Europe simply because of expense: the average cost of sending money home was 7.3% from wealthier EU nations while it was an incredibly low 2.4% in Russia. Money trumps attitudes.

This is not to say all is roses and rainbows for migrant workers in Russia. Poor living and working conditions have long been documented and general societal racism is not something from which Russia is immune. Even the anti-corruption political rival to Putin, Alexei Navalny, has openly taken anti-immigration positions in speeches. But there is a strange curiosity to this intense criticism of Russian immigration policy, the making of Russia as some sort unique migration ‘bogeyman’ as it were, especially if people take a moment to realize that the likely Republican nominee for the American presidency, Donald Trump, has espoused an ‘immigration policy’ that centers around building a huge wall along the southern border of the United States and forcing Mexico to pay for it or that several mature EU democracies currently face successful political runs from far-right formally xenophobic parties. So, clearly, immigration concerns are not exclusive to Russia and the award for perhaps the dumbest policy resolution goes to America. This shameful reality tends to be skipped over when Russian experts in the West are asked to give commentary.

Russia’s recent expansion of its ‘blacklist’ (people not allowed to enter the Russian Federation and refused work visas or, if found inside the country, deported) to 600,000 has drawn much irate criticism in the West as a blatant retrenchment to Soviet-style control and intimidation. This is somewhat overstated, however, with clarification and comparison: with some estimates of the illegal migrant population in Russia exceeding 10 million, the blacklist is ‘controlling’ barely 5% of the population in-country. And while it is inconvenient that many on the blacklist claim to be unaware they are on it, this is not entirely unlike the ‘no-fly’ list that became expansive in the United States at the height of the Global War on Terror: most people on the list found out only when trying to check in to a flight and were turned away at the airport ticket counter. Thus, the blacklist seems much more about classical geopolitics than strident xenophobic racism. For example, Kyrgyz diplomats see it as part of a wider campaign by Moscow to not so much indiscriminately reduce the number of Central Asians in Russia as to ‘leverage’ a so-far reluctant Kyrgyzstan to join the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Kyrgyz nationalists think this is better explained by Russian enthusiasm for asymmetric methods to wield influence over its ‘Near Abroad.’ Think Crimea but with less Western media fanfare and hyperbolic attention.

Countering that fascinating realpolitik Kyrgyz charge is a rational economic argument from the Russian side: Western interference in the Russian economy, with its imposition of harsh sanctions, has basically ‘forced’ such measures as overall economic indicators have turned sharply downward. Bakhrom Ismailov, an advisor on migration policy to the Russian Duma, confirmed that Moscow was expanding the blacklist mainly due to the fact that slow economic growth and negative trends in the Russian economy meant the need for labor migrants in the coming years would be markedly less. Let alone the fact that, according to Ismailov, native unemployment was likely to grow in the Russian Federation because of continued sanctions. While Westerners react to such charges with a ‘chickens coming home to roost’ mentality (ie, if you did not want sanctions, you should not have allowed Crimea to rejoin Russia), the argument made by the Duma committee on migration policy is fairly logical: during economic downturns most governments will consider measures to stabilize and support the domestic labor market for its own citizens, with labor migration consequently slowing down. This was seen most vividly in 2008-2009 during the housing crisis in the United States when a dramatic decrease in migrant workers from Mexico was seen. And yet for some reason when Russia follows that same path it is met with derisive skepticism and accusations of institutionalized political racism.

Perhaps one problem hanging over all of this is that Russia has always lacked a coherent immigration/integration policy. Because most of the migrant workers were coming from former Soviet republics, with a working knowledge of Russian and at least a rudimentary understanding of the history and cultural background of the host nation, it seems there was little desire or impetus to focus on integration programs that could help immigrant communities form more cooperative bonds with native Russian populations. Some Russian scholars are now seeing this as a far-reaching and damaging mistake. Professor Nikolai Sokolov of Saint Petersburg University, in an interview with Rosbalt news agency, explained that while in the past many migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus were themselves motivated to assimilate more fully into the local population, newer trends seem to be indicating diminished motivation on both sides to achieve such integration. Rather, the reinforcement and preservation of distinct local customs, traditions, and attitudes seem to be winning the day amongst migrant communities. Inevitably, this has resulted in an increase of misunderstanding and animosity between Russians and non-Russians. It is not entirely outlandish to say that many Russian cities now have areas that resemble ‘West Side Story,’ where ‘protection’ gangs are forming along ethnic lines to safeguard territory and market share for semi-legal economic activity.

Wherever economic sluggishness occurs in an environment of increased criminality and international tension, a renewed focus on security can be expected. Russia is no different. The most vivid example of this is recent policy considering the equalizing of internal working migrants with their external counterparts. This maneuver was clearly a consequence of the troubled southern flank of Russia. It is here where the legacy of the Chechen wars and nearly a century of concentrated organized criminal activity have created an almost sub-conscious security reflex in the Russian psyche. Unlike external migrant workers, where all of the strict registration and documentation laws apply, internal migrants from Russia’s destabilized South do not have to satisfy the same procedures. Over time this has come to be seen as an inexcusable breach in Russia’s own domestic security net. Unfortunately, numerous terrorist attacks on Russian soil perpetrated by freely-moving actors from the Russian South have only solidified this impression to a point where it is now perceptionally immutable: recent all-Russian opinion surveys revealed only 12% of respondents had a positive attitude toward ‘immigrants.’ Perhaps more disconcerting, migrant-phobia, for lack of a better term, permeates these same respondents, with nearly 50% believing that migrants are responsible for the spread of disease and increases in criminality.

Russia finds itself in a very perplexing predicament when it comes to migration, both internal and external. On the security side, it has a vested interest to protect its citizens from harm, but also has a responsibility to provide safe passage and freedom from harassment to all people residing in-country, even ones who may be there illegally. Failure to achieve this holistic security environment does not just destabilize the Russian state but obviously has serious spillover consequences for neighboring regions. The European Union, which is the next large-scale stable economic region of choice if Russia fails, has a vested interest in Russia maintaining this security equilibrium, as events in Paris and Brussels devastatingly indicate it has its own migration/immigration problems to consider. On the economic side, Russia is soon entering a period where it may literally find its working-age population too small to satisfy the needs of its economic growth. Federal Migration Service Chief Konstantin Romodanovsky admits that foreign migrants are no longer a mere luxury to be appreciated for their cost-effectiveness. Rather, they may become a life-line necessity for the continued growth and elevation of the Russian Federation within the global economy.

In sum, what this brief article has hopefully revealed is that while the West may tend to emphasize the tabloid-quality aspects of the issues so as to further its own negative perceptions and judgments against Russia, real analysis less interested in such sensationalism reveals important intellectual and geopolitical considerations. Perhaps it is time to ask for more objective balance and subtlety from those comfortably labeled ‘Russian experts’ across the West. Otherwise, it might be time to consider that we have mislabeled our ‘experts.’

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