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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Immigrant Policy Needed

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New rules came into force in mid-January that regulate more strictly the influx and activities of foreign laborers. Immigrants are now prohibited from selling medicines or alcohol, and as of April 1 foreigners will not be allowed to make up more than 40 percent of workers in kiosks and markets. By 2008, all those working in retail sales will be required to hold Russian citizenship.

New quotas for workers are also being introduced. This year, the plan allows for the granting of 308,842 general work visas. Another 6 million people from countries with which Russia has reciprocal visa agreements will also be granted the right to work here.

Considering that estimates of the number of foreigners working in Russia run from 8 million to 12 million, this clearly looks like a crackdown, notwithstanding that the government has also said it would simplify the registration process for guest workers.

The idea of tougher policies toward foreign workers has a fair deal of support. The answers to many questions, however, remain unclear. How well thought out are the new policies? What will their economic consequences be?

Most interesting, perhaps, is how they managed to arrive at the figures, like the unusual total of 308,842.

The 40 percent limit to go into effect April 1 also sounds arbitrary. Why not 30 percent or 50 percent? Why is the total number of spots for people from countries requiring visas just one-twentieth of those from "visa-free" countries? Does this mean that we need 20 times as many Belarussians and Ukrainians as Georgians and Estonians? How will those foreign workers be divided up among the various trades and professions?

There isn't any point in looking too hard for answers; there aren't any. There are no accurate data that could be used to determine the demand for foreign workers in different sectors of the work force.

In fact, nobody can cite a figure for the number of foreign workers in Russia today with a margin of error less than 1 million. We don't know how much they earn or what denying them the right to work here would cost the economy. We simply don't have much in the way of facts.

What we do have are plenty of emotions surrounding the issue, most of them xenophobic. The measures mentioned above represent an attempt on the part of the authorities to channel that xenophobia in what they feel is the safest direction.

Not even the political consequences of these measures are all that well understood.

This is particularly worrying, given that a number of European countries now admit that similar policies in the past have backfired. These countries have responded with resolute measures in the social and political spheres.

These consist of attempts to help foreign workers integrate and adapt to their new conditions. European experience demonstrates that the inability of immigrants to adapt to the culture of their host country can develop into a threat to peace and order.

Russia, however, has not even provided the most primitive language exams for immigrants, for example. This becomes even more dangerous when you consider that the immigrants in question are mostly unskilled laborers who often end up living in squalid conditions and with little in the way of civil rights, despite assurances from the authorities that working conditions for foreign laborers will be monitored closely.

So far there has been no discussion of quotas for skilled workers. These are the ones the country sorely needs to close the gap in science and technology with other countries. The very concept of establishing quotas, or of a point system such as that used in Canada, is entirely absent.

The almost simultaneous announcement of the start of President Vladimir Putin's program to repatriate ethnic Russians living abroad only muddies the water. There is just one problem with what is otherwise a good idea: The program does not define who is a compatriot, either by ethnicity or any other criterion.

Put all of this together and the idea of inviting foreign laborers to work in Russia on a managed basis could well become discredited in the eyes of a society that is falling increasingly under the influence of nationalism.

As these sentiments grow, there is the danger that they may take on an increasingly aggressive and intolerant character.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil magazine.