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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chaos as New Visa System Kicks In

A new law regulating the activities of foreigners living and working in Russia is supposed to make life easier for everyone -- expats, their employers, tourist agencies and government ministries alike. Instead, the law, which came into force this week, has created chaos and confusion.

As of Friday, for example, all employers and travel agencies wanting to issue visa invitations for their workers, clients or potential business partners must first reregister with the Interior Ministry.

The problem with that is there are nearly 40,000 companies that have issued invitations to foreigners in the past, and it will take months for the ministry to register each one that wants to do so under the new system, said Sergei Melnikov of the law firm Your Lawyer.

"The main question now is: What should organizations do if they need to invite somebody now?" Melnikov told the European Business Club during a briefing on the new law and its ramifications Thursday.

But like nearly everyone else who has studied the issue, Melnikov has no answer.

U.S. Consul General James Warlick said earlier in the week that for those expats who already have a visa, they can petition PVU, the new name for OVIR, the Interior Ministry's passport and visa agency, for an extension, but there is no guarantee of success.

As part of the revamp of the nation's visa regime, the Foreign Ministry stopped issuing invitations for multi-entry visas Oct. 15.

According to Warlick, foreigners already in Russia who need to get a new visa must first get a document from PVU that says they are legally here before they can get an invitation from the Foreign Ministry.

Once the invitation is in hand, it is back to PVU for the visa itself.

Warlick said that as far as he knows, foreigners outside the country who want a visa will still be able to get one from the nearest embassy or consulate, but, of course, they will first need an invitation, and how long it will take to get one is anyone's guess.

Tourist agencies are already feeling the pinch, with several already seeing a sharp drop in business, and they are bracing for some rough months ahead.

"It looks like no one knows what is going to happen," said Natalya Krivonosova, corporate account manager at the Moscow office of IntelService Center, an international tourist agency that specializes in organizing business conferences.

She said that before Oct. 15 the Foreign Ministry was handling about 2,000 visa applications a day -- a volume "the Interior Ministry is not prepared to deal with."

A woman who answered the telephone at the PVU office on Ulitsa Pokrovka declined to talk about the new system or recommend someone who would. "Probably," she said when asked if PVU was prepared to begin issuing multi-entry visas. "Come down in the morning. We are open."

Warlick said during a briefing to the American Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday that from now on all employed foreigners must be registered with PVU by their employer or "sponsor."

"Your sponsors will need to go to [PVU] and register you. It will be up to them then to attest to the fact that you are in Russia legally, and they will have to do that. Then they will have to provide that information to the Foreign Ministry before you can get your next visa," he said.

Krivonosova said she expects PVU will take from two to three weeks to process an application for an invitation and a total of one month to actually get a visa. "This is for people who, in some cases, will only be here for two or three days," she said.

Even the law itself is not fully functioning, and it could take months to bring into force all the various corresponding legislation needed to fully activate it.

Among other things, the law creates a Russian version of the U.S. green card, which would give permanent residents various new privileges, including the right to vote in municipal elections.

But like so many other elements of the law, corresponding laws and regulations needed for enforcement are still on the drafting table.

According to the government's official newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the issues that have yet to be worked out as of Thursday include:

the process for issuing temporary residence permits;

quotas for those permits;

quotas for guest workers;

social and legal guarantees for foreigners;

the rules for issuing work permits;

deportation guidelines;

illnesses that could be grounds for refusing entry;

territories forbidden to foreigners;

the nature of a foreigners' relationship with his or her sponsor;

creation of a database on foreigners.

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said in an interview published Thursday in Rossiiskaya Gazeta that implementing all aspects of the law will take "some time" but that the national database on foreigners should be in place no later than May.

When all is said and done, there will be three categories of foreigners in Russia legally -- temporary visitors, temporary residents and permanent residents.

The visitor category, including many citizens of countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States who do not need visas at all, can stay up to 90 days.

Andrei Chernenko, head of the Federal Migration Service, which is part of the Interior Ministry, told reporters Thursday that the main goal of the law is to legalize foreigners' activities in Russia.

Gryzlov said 3 million to 4 million illegal immigrants are currently working in the shadow economy, and no more than 300,000 foreigners a year have work permits.

The Labor Ministry intends to issue no more than 530,000 work permits.

He said that a new migration card will begin being issued in November. Foreigners will be required to fill in the card when entering the country, hand it over to the Federal Border Service when exiting and carry it on their person at all times, Gryzlov said.

If a person changes apartments or his or her workplace, the Interior Ministry must be informed and the new information listed on the card, he said.

Anyone caught without the card by July 1 could face deportation, Chernenko said.

Chernenko also mentioned the creation of a "migration fee" of $100 per person that would bring in some $30 million a year.

Other laws are being drafted that would spell out penalties for companies that hire illegal immigrants, Chernenko said.

Cheap foreign labor "deprofessionalizes" the Russian work force, Gryzlov said. "It's no secret that in the spring, in many agricultural regions, drunkenness increases among the local population, who are pushed out of the labor market by our guests from the south, who cost employers less," he said.