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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Not One Russian Is Knocking on the Door'

MTWorkers clearing snow between rows of empty stalls at the Leningradsky market in northern Moscow last Thursday.
The mood at the Cheryomushkinsky market in southwest Moscow, normally a buzzing Oriental bazaar with a hubbub of diverse accents from the Caucasus and Central Asia, is subdued: One-third of the stalls stand empty.

Some Uzbeks and Azeris, former traders, wander about aimlessly, and the rows of luscious fruits and the spicy aromas that used to be a permanent feature here have all but disappeared.

In the two weeks since the government imposed a quota of 40 percent on foreign workers at the country's markets, rows of empty stalls have appeared at markets across Moscow, while city officials and market administrators readily admit they are having a hard time filling the void left by migrant workers.

With greater or lesser effect, it's a picture being repeated across the country. Proportionally, the largest exodus appears to be in the sparsely populated Far East, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese traders are reported to be packing up and preparing to depart, leaving whole markets deserted.

"See for yourself," said Uzbek citizen Maruf Yusupov, a trader at the Cheryomushkinsky market, barely hiding his exasperation as he pointed to a row of stalls left empty after the quotas came into force Jan. 15. "Do you think Russians will stand here from dawn to dusk every day to sell vegetables and tomatoes?"

"If they don't want us here, we'll leave," he said. "I'm certain these stalls will remain empty."

The gaps at the markets are set to grow come April 1, when a full ban on foreign traders in retail markets comes into force.

The crackdown was ordered by President Vladimir Putin in October, when he urged the government to "protect the native population" in the country's markets. His comments came after ethnic tensions flared in anti-migrant riots in the Karelia region and amid a spy dispute with Georgia that led to the deportation of planeloads of Georgians.

Critics of the migration changes say the authorities are playing into the hands of right-wing nationalist groups, such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, who have been whipping up sentiment against migrants and claiming that they are taking jobs from ethnic Russians.

Along with the markets crackdown, the government has set a quota of 6 million work permits for countries that have visa-free agreements with Russia. But this figure falls well short of the 10 million illegal migrants in the country, according to the Federal Migration Service, which has been charged with implementing the new regulations.

A new, 10-day registration procedure for migrant workers, touted as a simplified "one-stop shop" by the Federal Migration Service, also came into effect Jan. 15. But so far the change has led to chaotic scenes in overcrowded offices, with hundreds of people besieging clerks amid complaints that there are not enough application forms to go around.

Price Hikes

Government officials have stressed that the new regulations are being implemented as "painlessly" as possible, and insist that there were will be no problems in filling the places left by migrant workers. But so far the picture on the ground at Moscow markets tells a different story; notices at main entrances read, "We are looking for traders with Russian citizenship."

At the city's central Danilovsky market, where most of the stallholders were from Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, some Slavic faces could be seen behind the stalls selling cucumbers, honey and a few homegrown vegetables. Prices for most foodstuffs have gone up, sometimes by as much as 200 percent.

Tamara, a shopper at the market who refused to give her last name, said she did not care "who is selling as long as price is right."

"These tomatoes cost 100 rubles less last week, but see what we have now," she said, pointing to a heap marked at 250 rubles per kilogram.

"Without competition, price hikes are to be expected," said Fauna, an Uzbek vendor of fruit and vegetables at the market, who also declined to give her last name. "Nothing I sell here is grown in Russia. It's all imported, so I don't know how this law is going to work."

Fauna said her papers were in order, but her main concern was that she would now have to deal with more middlemen to buy her produce.

Irina Chichikova, who runs a clothes stall at the Luzhniki market in central Moscow, said she had never suffered from competing with Chinese and Vietnamese traders, whom she described as industrious and agile.

"We Muscovites have a hard time standing from 10 in the morning until 9 o'clock in the evening, selling garments," she said. "The reason [migrant workers] can do this is that they are content with little turnover from great efforts."

"Who crafted those laws?" Chichikova said. "This was probably concocted by some corrupt officials to milk the traders."

The Moscow city government official in charge of retail markets, Vladimir Malyshkov, said in an interview last week that 30,000 migrant traders were being pushed out of the city's markets and that he saw few signs that Muscovites were willing to take up their low-paying jobs.

This was borne out by the director of the Cheryomushkinsky market, who identified himself only by his first name and patronymic, Alexander Vladimirovich. Even though "there's an invitation out there, not one Russian is knocking on the door," he said in an interview at the market last week.

"I'm not a magician," he said in response to a follow-up question Tuesday about whether he had yet managed to replace the migrant workers.

At the Cherkizovsky market in northwest Moscow, the exodus of the mainly Chinese, Vietnamese and Central Asian stallholders has left business partially paralyzed. Last year, the market was hit by a bomb suspected of being planted by nationalists, leaving 10 people dead, among them five Chinese and one Vietnamese.

Kolya Stratechuk, a Ukrainian migrant trader who owns a number of stalls at the market, said officials would "backpedal as soon as they realize the futility of their efforts to reduce the number of migrant traders.

"There's nothing good coming out of this apart from reduced competition and price hikes," he said.

The director of the Cherkizovsky market declined to comment, saying only that the problems were the making of the migration service and so all complaints should be directed to them.

Zhenya, a Tajik loader at the Tyoply Stan market who sleeps inside a goods container at the market, said he would be staying put, as he had nowhere else to go to.

Far East Exodus

Crowds and Chaos at Migration Offices
A spokesman for the Federal Migration Service on Tuesday sought to deflect criticism of its role in implementing the new migration rules, and insisted it was doing everything it could to ensure that they were applied "as painlessly" as possible.

Konstantin Poltoranin said most of the difficulties encountered during the implementation of the new regulations were not of the service's making.

"We do not make the laws," Poltoranin said. "But we are trying to enforce them as painlessly as possible."

Poltoranin conceded, however, that the federal program to attract ethnic Russians back to the country, launched in September, had run into problems due to lack of preparation.

He said the Moscow city government could negotiate with federal authorities about modifying the regulations or introducing local bylaws to alleviate labor shortages.

On the chaos at Federal Migration Service offices since Jan. 15, Poltoranin said most of the long lines "resulted from excitement generated by the absence of correct information on the procedures," Poltoranin said. "Many people came to reception points after being misinformed that those points would close within 20 days," he said.

Migration service offices in Moscow were still being besieged Tuesday, with hundreds of people scrambling to obtain registration forms at the central Bolshaya Ordynka reception point, one of the three functioning in the city.

Vanya, a Moldovan construction worker, said Tuesday's visit was his third fruitless attempt. "There were not enough blank forms to go around, not to talk of moving an inch forward," he said.

In the Far East cities of Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk, local journalists said Chinese and Vietnamese migrant workers were bearing the brunt of the new regulations.

Retail trade there is dominated mainly by Chinese and Vietnamese vendors, and with the introduction of the new rules, many of them have packed their stock, creating shortages of goods and price hikes.

Vladivostok's Tsentralnaya Sportivnaya market, controlled by Chinese and Vietnamese traders, was closed down after most of the traders left.

"Constant raids by the immigration authorities coupled with the upcoming Chinese New Year have led to complete disaster in many markets in the city," said Alla Rudnikova, a business reporter for the city's Prima Media news agency.

Rudnikova said city authorities were desperately looking for ways to mitigate the impact of the new rules. "Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants are now offering between 3,000 and 4,000 rubles to local pensioners and invalids to stand in their place in the markets," she said.

In Khabarovsk, where the city's proximity to the Chinese border has led many to rely on Chinese retailers for cheap food and clothes. City center markets were closed completely.

After Federal Migration Service officials carried out document checks on the handful of Chinese traders left, most of them also packed up their goods and prepared to leave. Others were handing over their stalls to Russian partners for quick "clearance" sales, Rudnikova said.

The new rules are putting pressure on some 100,000 Vietnamese immigrants living in Russia, with the vast majority working in markets and roadside shops.

In Ufa, the capital of Bashkorstan, two Vietnamese markets closed down. Many retail shops in the area sold their goods at reduced prices to clear stock, the online edition of Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien Daily reported Jan. 19.

Last month, as rumors of the impending measures gained credence, Vietnamese-owned retail shops were selling fur coats, jeans, sweaters, sports pants, and T-shirts at half of the original prices.

In Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha region, retail trade was "literally paralyzed," said Alexander Yakovlev, editor of the city's Ekho Stolitsa newspaper. "Overzealous officials conduct daily raids at the city's markets, prompting most of the Vietnamese and Kyrgyz immigrants to flee."

Yakovlev said there was no one to replace the migrant workers because they sold specific wares, most of them imported.

"Vietnamese exporters to Russia are worried about lost revenues to the lucrative market as a result of the regulation, as Vietnamese retailers there have been a key channel for export businesses for many years," Thanh Nien Daily said.

Nguyen Ba Anh, the head of the Vietnamese Business Association in Russia, said: "A lack of accurate information on trade and government regulations left most Vietnamese businesspeople unaware of the ban on foreign involvement in the Russian retail sector."

Economic Fallout

Apart from losing their small businesses in Russia, most of the migrants face an uncertain future and often-chronic unemployment in their native countries if they fail in their bid to work legally here.

The economic effects of the crackdown are likely to be felt especially in the CIS countries that supply most of the country's migrant labor force, a World Bank report released last week said.

CIS countries are particularly dependent on the remittances migrant workers in Russia send home to their families. According to official figures, remittances constitute more than 20 percent of gross domestic product in Moldova and over 10 percent in Armenia and Tajikistan, the report said.

With migrant workers comprising 10 percent of the population, Russia is now second only to the United States in the number of migrant workers, the report said.

The benefits accruing to Russia from migrant workers include the growth of small businesses and construction companies, and relief from its chronic demographic problems, the report said.

The CIS countries most affected by the crackdown have been negotiating with Moscow to increase their respective work quotas, with Tajikistan asking for its quota to be raised from 600,000 to 800,000 workers, and Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan also reported to be in talks.

Russians living on low incomes could be hit by the lack of cheap goods if the places in the markets are not filled by April, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref told State Duma deputies earlier this month.

"Russians buy 40 percent of their meat, 44 percent of their vegetables and more than 50 percent of their winter clothes from these markets," he said.

Gref said the government might consider delaying the complete ban on foreigners in retail markets until later in the year if there were a threat to the supply of basic goods.

As well as making basic goods more expensive, the new rules will likely lead to more corruption at the markets, said Yelena Tyuryukanova, a senior researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Problems of Population at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"Such measures will lead to price increases, especially for groceries and clothes, and make life unbearable for the low-income groups who rely on the markets to satisfy basic needs," she said.

"The markets will not be paralyzed," Tyuryukanova said. "The situation will simply allow corruption to fester and lead to backdoor tactics that will allow migrant workers to work using locals as fronts."