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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The High Cost of Low Immigration

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In a multinational, multifaith and unevenly populated country such as Russia, racial and religious intolerance can create a threat to territorial integrity. But more than anything else, such attitudes hurt the national economy.

Demographic trends in Russia are very troubling. World Bank data indicate that the population will shrink from 144 million to 119 million by 2050. Raising the retirement age, a remedy being tried in some countries, will not help here, where work is heavy and people do not live that long.

Russia clearly needs a steady flow of immigration, or work force shortages will slow economic growth. The World Bank estimates this need at 1 million immigrants per year, close to the figure of 1.1 million reached by the Center for Strategic Research of the Volga Federal District. This is three times the average annual immigration rate for the years 1989-2002. People will not come to Russia in these numbers by themselves: The country must stimulate the inflow through immigration policy.

The countries of the former Soviet Union should be a natural source for Russia: They share a common language, similar educational standards and the experience of living together as one country. But Russia is not using these advantages. Draconian citizenship and migration laws, developed under the leadership of presidential adviser Viktor Ivanov, are a definite policy mistake. Strict procedures, bureaucratic red tape and corruption do not simply make the lives of potential immigrants more difficult, they drive them into the criminal-controlled, non-taxpaying gray economy. Lack of housing and labor market information plus the onerous institution of registration also hinder migration from depressed regions of Russia to faster-developing ones. The end result is that immigration flow is not simply decreasing, but a "negative selection" is at work: Qualified, educated and more easily assimilated residents of neighboring countries do not want to put up with the inhuman conditions in Russia, so they go elsewhere.

Certain politicians are making the situation worse by playing on latent nationalism and fears of an immigrant rebellion like the one in France. These nationalists are distorting the French situation for their own ends. The uprising there was caused by high unemployment among immigrants and their isolation from the rest of society. Having a job, and especially being able to own a business -- these are the key factors in integrating immigrants into a host society. In Russia, lack of work is not a danger for immigrants. Why then are the Russian authorities so slow to correct their immigration policy and so reluctant to set strong sanctions against nationalist appeals? Their delay has a very high price.

This comment first appeared in longer form as an editorial in Vedomosti.