Migrants in Russia are being subjected to legal checks on a mass scale in Moscow and other regions. It all started with a July 27 incident at an open-air market in Moscow that left a police officer with a broken skull – a brutal injury aired for all the Internet to see once shaky video footage emerged. The beating occurred as police endeavored to arrest a 25-year-old Dagestani native wanted on suspicion of trying to rape an under-aged girl. All that happened next firmly suggests that Russian migration policies are undergoing a radical shift. What’s currently underway is by no means spontaneous. In fact, work in this area has been actively underway for the past six months. And a new migration program will fully enter into force on January 1, 2014, when the Federal Migration Service (FMS) will be emboldened thanks to a new set of expanded powers.

Legislative enhancements 

The new migration program is the product of massive reforms announced by President Vladimir Putin in the lead up to the elections, where one’s perspective on the issue of inter-ethnic relations was widely considered to hold the keys to Russia. The plans include new approaches to checking the legality of migration documents, the establishment of special centers for those awaiting deportation, the increased strength of the FMS, and sanctions against employers hiring workers without due registration with the service.

In a total of 81 Russian cities, 83 holding centers for deportable migrants should start operating soon. One such center was already established in Moscow shortly after the police beating incident.

The key innovation here may be the equalization of internal working migrants with their external counterparts. At the core of such a radical decision was an expanding sense of discontent in Russia with seasonal workers from Caucasian southern republics. Unlike their counterparts from – for instance – Central Asia and other foreign countries, the existing migration laws don’t apply to them. Notably, it was such a worker from the Russian Republic of Dagestan – thus an internal migrant – who brutalized the police officer in that Moscow market brawl. But all that could soon change pending the adoption of a new law on registration currently being considered by the State Duma.

It was President Putin who proposed the introduction of substantial fines and even prison terms for those found to have violated the rules on registration within the territory of the Russian Federation. The lower house of parliament approved the corresponding bill in its first reading on February 15. A vote on the second and third reading before it becomes law is expected to take place in the autumn.

The bill requires property owners to report any unregistered person living in the premises. In this case there is no distinction between foreigners and Russian nationals. The bill further permits the authorities to deport Russian nationals that are unregistered in the city that they're presently residing in. For instance, if a man from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala were to live and work in Moscow without proper registration, he could be placed in a deportation center pending being shipped back to Makhachkala, the place where he is properly registered.

Quite possibly Russia may slide back to the notorious “propiska” system of the Soviet times.

Propiska was a pervasive system that allowed the state to effectively control the migration of the population. The system, which was developed and widely enforced throughout the USSR, aimed to preserve permanent places of residence by requiring citizens to receive permission from the authorities for any changes in one’s official place of residence, one’s place of work or study, or in order to buy real estate in any form. The system of propiska was abolished in 1993, but is still broadly referenced in modern Russia. On December 27, 2010 Putin – then a prime minister – suggested a partial return to the old system of propiska, at least insofar as reinstituting the criminalization and the possibility of expulsion for registration violations.

Grounds for concern

Anyway, the state is only responding to the will of society: Russia’s anti-migration sentiment reached its climax this summer. The results of a poll released by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) in July suggested that 35% of respondents view the settlement by foreigners in Russia as a real threat.

But to what extent are these fears justified? Statistically speaking, foreign migrants have a stronger tendency to abide by the law than their Muscovite brethren. According to Moscow Police data, 88,096 crimes were reported in the city during the first half of the year, of which 5,788 were committed by residents of neighboring countries. By that count, citizens of neighboring countries accounted for only 6.5% of Moscow crime for the first half of the year. Similar findings were reflected by the data in 2011 and 2012 as well.

The notion that there are much less problems with foreign migrants when it comes to complying with the law is reiterated by data offered by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS). Chief of the FPS Department for the Execution of Sentences and Special Accounting Sergey Esipov recently announced that Russia’s prison population stands at approximately 587,000, of which foreigners constitute approximately 27,000, or a mere 4.6%. This is particularly telling in light of the fact that virtually all foreign migrants are convicted when tried for alleged criminal activity. By Russia’s Interior Ministry’s count, foreigners committed approximately 1.8% of crimes reported throughout the country in 2012.

Even so, the number of crimes committed by foreign migrants is decreasing. According to Moscow prosecutor Sergey Kudeneev, between 2008 and 2012 - crimes committed by foreigners was halved, from 16,000 to approximately 8,000. At the same time, the proportion of crimes deemed serious to very serious is on the rise. Kudeneev explained that foreign migrants in Moscow account for every fifth murder, every third robbery, and every second rape.
Experts fear that increasing numbers of migrants will cause impede assimilation, and fear that the presently optimistic criminal statistics may buckle under that pressure.

In an interview with Rosbalt news agency, Sociology Professor Nikolai Sokolov of Saint Petersburg State University explained that whereas earlier migrants from Central Asia were amply motivated to try to fit in with Russia's local population, the growth of Russia's migrant population is reenforcing the preservation of the values and customs of one's homeland.

For similar reasons, Russian experts fear that migrant workers may form competing criminal gangs in Russia. And there will be no one to combat this trend. The regional structure developed to fight organized crime was abolished some time ago.

Meanwhile, ethnic ghettos in Russia are hotbeds of crime. A market known as Apraksin Dvor in the center of St. Petersburg has essentially gone rogue. City officials shut down the market years ago, asking the traders to leave in order to accommodate renovations. Still, this proved to have been to no avail. Arpaksin Dvor has continued to operate as something of a black market ever since.

There once was a market in Moscow known as Cherkizovsky Market, famous for the fact that it contained all manner of sin. Rumor has it you could buy basically anything that qualifies as contraband there. Alas, it was closed in 2009. At about 45,000 migrants, 20,000 of whom illegals, were left without work, according to the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. After that, inhabitants of the notorious market moved to the Pokrovskaya vegetable warehouse and some other markets operating in Moscow and its suburbs. As a general rule, strangers and Russian speakers are denied entry to the warehouse. 

The need for migrants

Despite all of these troubles, there are two key reasons Russia can't just shut down its borders with the Central Asia republics and refuse entry to migrant workers: geopolitics and the economy.

By providing work for migrants, Russia is assisting its Central Asian neighbors, which remain quite unstable due to the influence of international terrorist and extremist groups.

Furthermore, a full-stop rejection of migrants could lead to an economic collapse. Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development predicts that Russia’s working-age population may decrease by 8-9% by 2020. According to its Deputy Minister Andrey Klepach, the present working-age population in Russia of 87 million may tumble to somewhere between 79 and 80 million in the next seven years.

In Klepach's own words, "Until this point, we had developed in an environment where labor and employment were stable. Now we are entering a phase where the working-age population is shrinking."

FMS Chief Konstantin Romodanovsky admits that foreign migrants are no longer a mere luxury to be appreciated for their cost-effectiveness; rather, they have become a necessity.

Arkady Smolin, RAPSI