20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Russian government has a contradictory attitude toward immigration. Visa-free travel with Central Asian countries facilitates labor migration, yet a negative public attitude toward migrants is being encouraged. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek considers why the Kremlin benefits from such a state of affairs.



Russia’s migration policy could make a sane person dizzy. It is definitely inconsistent, with efforts being made in opposite directions. The absence of a consistent policy creates an atmosphere of chaos. However, the lack of clarity does not necessarily signify a lack of system. In this case, the system not only implies, but also encourages, the passage of decisions that contradict one another. This is a long-range policy.

The main contradiction in the Russian government’s migration policy is encouraging immigration on the one hand and setting society against migrants on the other. Visa-free travel remains the strongest immigration incentive. Knowing the Russian government’s love for restrictive measures, it would be possible to limit the influx of migrant workers by introducing visas within a couple of months. The government’s reason for not doing that is obviously not its forgetfulness.

Law-enforcement authorities and government oversight agencies have turned a blind eye to the merciless exploitation of migrant workers by Russian employers. Labor, sanitation, and housing regulations are being violated, and these workers are being deprived of their civil rights and coerced into slave labor. Migrant workers in Russia are not even granted the same legal protections as Russian citizens. We are not talking about one particular city or describing one particular case; this is the state policy. And the objective of this policy is to provide the maximum number of migrant workers to employers in order to further those employers’ interests.

What would happen if the government demanded that employers comply with Russian laws regarding migrant workers? For instance, imagine that employers had to provide their employees with acceptable living conditions and the minimum wages stipulated by law and to guarantee their labor rights. The cost of overhead expenses connected with taking on foreign workers would increase many-fold, profits would drop, and, consequently, hiring foreign workers would become rather pointless. Given the enforcement of such working conditions, employers could just as easily hire Russian citizens. Everybody understands this—the migrants themselves, their employers, and the state.

Migrant workers in Russia are not even granted the same legal protections as Russian citizens.

Everybody agrees with this state of affairs: some by necessity, others by convenience. Being deprived of work and the means of subsistence in their native countries to the south and east of Russia, migrants themselves are happy with conditions that Russian citizens would find unacceptable. Business owners save money by hiring migrants at the expense of wages, taxes, and social guarantees. There are no exact statistical data about this sector of employment, but it is evident that local authorities and their affiliated commercial structures represent a considerable part of employers. Migrants from Central Asia, working as street cleaners, are being housed in small apartments, with 15 to 20 individuals in each one, and are being paid a miserable fraction of the wages that are allocated by local budgets specifically for this purpose. It is as clear as noonday where the rest of the money goes. There is also no doubt that the police is well informed about what is going on but is doing nothing. Naturally, its inaction also costs money.

The state in general looks favorably on the established system. In 2006, a law was adopted that considerably simplified the process of labor migration from those states that have visa-free travel agreements with Russia. For instance, an employer who wishes to hire these migrants does not need permission from the Federal Migration Service (FMS). Nor must the government make any serious efforts to integrate migrant workers into Russian society. Public health and education do not exist for these people. Migrants are seen only as a cheap workforce. And this policy is not only a matter of gain and corruption.

The presence of a large number of migrants in Russia is politically profitable for the government. According to different sources, there are between 15 and 20 million migrant workers in the country today. Nobody knows for sure how many of them return to their countries and how many have chosen to live in Russia on a permanent basis. Immigration has long since made up for the natural population loss that has occurred in the past several decades in Russia. Migrants mainly come from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, and recently also from China and Vietnam. All of these countries, except for Ukraine, are governed by despotic regimes of different degrees of brutality. Individuals’ legal consciousness and ability to defend their civil rights are always weaker in countries with despotic regimes than they are in free ones. In Russia, they are weaker than in Western Europe and North America, and in Central Asia, they are weaker than in Russia.


Citizens of several CIS countries, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, do not need a visa to enter the Russian Federation.


The presence of such a large number of people with different cultural and legal traditions cannot but have an effect on the general situation. All countries suffer from this challenge of globalization, though they solve the attendant problems differently.

In Russia, no efforts are being made to solve this problem at all. The only thing that worries the government is how to isolate migrants from society, creating an unprotected community of people with no rights. Nationalists come to the government’s aid in this project, armed with their petty xenophobic ideology of racial hostility. Through their daily activities—from spreading nationalist propaganda to engaging in racially motivated murders—they try to set society against migrants. Ignoring facts, they blame migrants for the growing crime rate. Any street fight or domestic murder in which one of the participants is a foreigner is represented to society as a national event and as another attack by foreigners on Russia’s native population. Nationalists do their best to spread hatred and widen the gap between migrant communities and the rest of society.

Because nationalists’ efforts coincide with the government’s objectives, the regime has given them its full support. It has recently become known that the Government of Moscow issued an order to create a “special volunteer patrol force to assist the FMS.” According to the Civic Assistance Committee, volunteer groups will participate in city patrols together with FMS officers, detain “violators of the migration law,” and bring them to police stations. Similar volunteer patrols are already operating in St. Petersburg. In many Russian cities, Cossack patrols and other pseudo-police groups pursue not only immigrants but also against internal migrants from other parts of Russia. All of these xenophobia-based undertakings contradict the law in one way or another.

So what is the government’s interest in permitting such activities? Its main objective is to bring different parts of society into conflict on the basis of mutual hatred and intolerance. When intolerance and the desire to limit others’ civil rights spring from society, the regime triumphs. It does not matter who is the despot and who the victim. What is important is that society uses the same methods that the regime sees as its main instruments of control. Force being the foundation of the current regime’s policy, any violence in society serves the government’s purposes.

At the same time, the government obviously has to control everyone—nationalists, migrants, and civic groups alike. By pulling different strings, the regime can ensure total public discord and mutual incomprehension.

By encouraging immigration, the government also pursues another strategic objective. And this is not only about whether Russian society is oriented toward the West or the East. It is important to understand that the majority of immigrants will become naturalized sooner or later. This is a natural process, no matter who tries to resist it and how. The current regime probably expects migrants, who are used to having no rights and being totally dependent on their employers, to become its last voting-base in case it is forced to hold free elections.

If that is true, the government will try to both keep the country’s doors wide open for migrants and ensure control over that part of society. Perhaps this is the reason why Russia’s immigration laws are being amended to control the registration process for migrants. The government wants to know who lives where and who will vote for whom, should the necessity arise. This strategy provides for the complete dependence of migrants on the government, which can promise them protection from nationalists, unscrupulous employers, and other enemies of the “little scared man.” This strategy will be particularly evident before elections or any other form of general mobilization aimed at protecting the power of usurpers.

At the same time, we can expect to see simplification of the naturalization procedures. Putin and his inner circle would rather Russia be Asia-oriented instead of turning toward the West. This way, the country could be more easily managed. Stealing and breaking the law in such a country would also be easier.

Putin and his inner circle would rather Russia be Asia-oriented instead of turning toward the West.

What can be done to oppose the government’s actions in this situation? One drastic and very challenging solution would be to encourage the integration of migrants into society, narrowing the gap between society and migrant communities that has been meticulously created by nationalists and the government. One should remember that migrants from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Southeast Asia are people just like us, with the same everyday problems and concerns, but who have happened to find themselves in great distress. The adoption of legal culture, language, and traditions will come with time. Tolerance triumphs over lack of understanding. Compassion overcomes selfishness. That is, if one has tolerance and compassion.

The proposal of the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition to introduce visas for citizens of Central Asian countries to limit the influx of migrants has a nationalistic tinge, which is not surprising, considering the Council’s composition. Such an easy solution could have been expected from the government but not from the opposition. In its recent statement, the Coordinating Council rightly drew attention to the miserable wages and horrible working conditions of migrants, “which undermines Russia’s own workforce”; “the slave-like status of many migrants”; the impossibility of integrating migrants into Russian society; and the economic, cultural, linguistic, and religious barriers that separate Russian citizens from migrants. But the conclusion is purely administrative: to introduce visas. As if this really were a solution to the problem; as if migrants themselves were the root of all evil, rather than the illegal conditions to which they are subjected. One could only grieve over such a superficial view—a solution à la Stalin’s “no man, no problem.” And as a reward, the European Union is going to allow Russian citizens to travel to its territory without a visa.

Visas can of course be used as a restrictive measure in countries where all other integration resources have been exhausted. But in places where migrants are considered a source of gain or a means to solve political problems, it is more appropriate to talk about thriving lawlessness and the regime’s excesses than to blame foreigners for everything. Such an attitude would at least be more appropriate for the opposition. It would be nicer still if the opposition could remember the importance of humanity and compassion in dealing with refugees and put itself in their shoes.

Calling on citizens to oppose the government’s excesses toward migrants would be a decent approach for the opposition to take. It would be more appropriate to help migrants defend their rights and ultimately turn them into allies in the campaign to help Russia move toward freedom and democracy.