Far-Flung Diaspora Gets a Sweet Invitation

BRUSSELS -- Uzbek emigres Igor Pulyavin and Alexei Kostikov say they're sick of ubiquitous souvenirs of Manneken Pis, the small bronze statue of a boy urinating into a fountain that is one of the most famous landmarks of the Belgian capital.

Belgian chocolates don't exactly get their adrenaline jumping either.

"It is a warm morass here, safe but boring," Pulyavin said in an interview in the tiny office of the Information and Legal Center for Russian Compatriots in central Brussels. "I guess we miss extreme."

Born in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, Pulyavin, 42, and Kostikov, 39, both left an independent Uzbekistan for Belgium in 2000, seeking a peaceful, serene life in the West.

Eight years later, the two men have signed up for a federal program aimed at encouraging Russian speakers living abroad to settle in Russia.

The program was unveiled in June 2006 by then-President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to address the country's demographic crisis by attracting Russian-speaking workers. Officials at the time expressed hope that the program would entice 300,000 workers to come to Russia by 2009, thanks in part to a fast-track naturalization process.

That figure now seems overly ambitious: So far, 7,760 workers and their families have settled in Russia under the program's auspices, while another 30,414 have enrolled and are currently on the waiting list, according to the Federal Migration Service.

Vladimir Pozdorovkin, the Foreign Ministry official responsible for implementing the program, put a positive spin on the latest figures, saying the mere fact that people are immigrating to Russia shows that the program is working.

"But this year has shown that [the program] needs to be corrected," said Pozdorovkin, head of the ministry's department dealing with Russian speakers living abroad.

The government plans to increase the number of the regions and participants eligible for the program, Pozdorovkin said.

The Foreign Ministry estimates that some 30 million ethnic Russians live abroad, two-thirds of them in former Soviet republics.

The program is aimed at attracting "compatriots," a term that is defined in a relevant 2006 federal law as people abroad "raised in the traditions of Russian culture who speak Russian and do not want to lose their ties to Russia."

The benefits offered to program participants include a job, a one-time personal money allowance, moving expenses and a guaranteed fast track to Russian citizenship.

While Pulyavin and Kostikov say their bland existence in Belgium is making them antsy, they say it is also the guaranteed job offered by the federal program that is prompting them to leave a cushy European life for Russia.

Pulyavin and Kostikov, who live in Ghent, a town 45 kilometers northwest of Brussels, both say they have been frustrated by their employment in Belgium. Pulyavin, a trained psychologist, is working construction jobs illegally. Kostikov, a trained electronic engineer, has a work permit but says he cannot work in his field because he needs to take additional coursework to upgrade his qualifications.

Between 70,000 and 90,000 Russian speakers currently reside in Europe, of whom 200 to 300 leave for Russia each year, according to the European Russian Society. Of those, however, only three have signed up for the 2006 federal program, said Sergei Petrosov, head of the Center of Russian Compatriots in Brussels.

The Belgium example highlights a broader flaw in the repatriation program, Petrosov said: Russian speakers who don't have legal status in the country in which they reside can't take part in the program. There are about 20,000 Russian speakers with no legal status in Belgium, he said.

Another key flaw is that only 12 regions in need of skilled workers are providing accommodation to Russian-speaking immigrants, while program participants may want to resettle in a different region, Petrosov said.

The government plans to increase the number of participating regions to 50 and to allow Russian speakers living illegally abroad to enroll, he said.

Bureaucratic hurdles -- a common aspect of any Russian state business -- have also hindered participation, including the excessive paperwork the program requires aspiring immigrants to submit, Petrosov said.

Pulyavin and Kostikov, meanwhile, are counting the days until their departures in March and July, respectively.

"I've been depressed for the last two years," Kostikov said.