Immigrant-Friendly 'Holding Pens' in Offing?

Imagine government-run "holding pens" outside Moscow and St. Petersburg for tens of thousands of immigrant would-be workers. Or empty-yet-hospitable towns summoned, by Kremlin fiat, out of the steppes of Siberia, ready to embrace new worker-citizens.

Stalinist policy in the postwar era of population redistributions? No, these are projects under consideration by the current government as ways to halt the slide in Russia's population.

President Vladimir Putin is among those who have expressed concern about the demographic crisis — which has most recently been highlighted in a stark report by the Economic Development and Trade Ministry suggesting the Russian population will have fallen by more than 30 percent by 2050.

The natural decline in the Russian population — led mostly by a birth rate that trails a death rate — works out to about 1 million fewer citizens each year. Putin has suggested one solution lies in adopting policies to encourage more immigration.

"We must attract the labor resources of the countries of the former Soviet Union," the president said at a recent meeting in Novosibirsk.

Such talk has sent officials running to the drawing board.

Georgy Poltavchenko, the governor general for the Central Federal District — one of the seven "super districts" Putin ordered set up soon after taking office — has proposed setting up special immigrant camps outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Poltavchenko dubbed such camps otstoiniki, or "holding pens." (Otstoiniki also refers to massive parking lots for trailer trucks, and also to cesspools.)

Poltavchenko sees such camps outside Moscow and St. Petersburg accommodating up to 100,000 people at a time, most of them immigrants from former Soviet republics.

Residents would be able to live in the otstoiniki for six months, after which time they would either have to find permanent work somewhere in the provinces, or might be offered unpopular jobs in Moscow and Petersburg, such as street sweepers or law enforcement officers.

The idea is a tough sell for some, including Vladimir Iontsev, a Moscow State University demographer who heads the economic faculty's department of national populations.

"After getting used to big cities they [immigrants] won't want to go anywhere else," Iontsev said. "They'll stay there, albeit at the lower levels of society. They are more likely to get involved in crime than till the soil somewhere out there. It seems like a bad idea."

Similarly dramatic schemes are under consideration at the Federal Migration Service.

A national program on migration will be prepared early next year, said Olga Vorobyova, head of the department for migration at the Migration Policy Ministry. (The ministry this year was absorbed by the Federal Migration Service.)

The draft prepared to date proposes that new towns be built in far-off regions, and that willing immigrants be shipped out to those towns for shift work. The program must be approved by May 2001 if it is to be included in the next federal budget, Vorobyova said.

"Look at the south of Siberia. You can grow watermelons in Khakassia and parts of Buryatia. From there people can be moved out for shift work [to various mineral-rich regions]," said Sergei Podgorbunsky, head of the Migration Policy Ministry's press service. "A brigade flies in and works 20 to 30 days, while another group rests."

It is no coincidence that Siberia is so much discussed. In Novosibirsk last week, Putin complained that newcomers to Russia always want to live either in the Black Sea sun or in the capital.

"In general everyone goes to Sochi or to Moscow," he said. "But we need people here in Siberia."

Building new settlements out there will require private cash, according to Podgorbunsky.

But companies active in Siberia and capable of providing the sort of large-scale investment that would be needed were skeptical. Putin's remarks aside, managers of such companies generally said they felt there were plenty of people already in Siberia.

"Our labor needs are not such that new people need to be brought in," said Alexander Vasilenko, press secretary with LUKoil, a major employer throughout the region.

Vasilenko said LUKoil has enough workers living in its own oil-supported company towns, such as Kalagim and Langepas, to develop its oil business. He suggested a workforce of sorts might need to be brought in for developing the more remote Timan-Pechora region.

But he also said the problem was less the number of willing workers than of trained workers, and argued that the emphasis should be more on training existing populations than on importing new ones.

Other major employers in southern Siberia agreed.

"We are expanding at BrAZ [the Bryansk Aluminum Factory] at the moment, and we are finding labor without any difficulties," said Vladimir Alexandrov, press secretary with the Russian Aluminum holding, which controls BrAZ.

Those specific projects aside, however, some demographers said a bold new immigration-friendly policy could indeed improve Russia's demographic slide.

Last year, 367,000 people immigrated to Russia from abroad — including a mere 542 people from outside the family of former Soviet republics. That same year, however, according to State Statistics Committee data, 238,000 left the country — about half of them for the wider world beyond the borders of the CIS.