Migration Policy in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

Migration has become an increasingly difficult problem for the Russian government as the decline and subsequent stagnation of the size of Russia’s population and a relatively higher standard of living in Russia have made the country an attractive goal for migrants from a number of former Soviet republics. The articles in this issue of Russian Politics and Law examine the question of migration from several points of view, including critical analysis, comparative politics, history, and policy.

In “Central Asian Migration: Practices, Local Communities, Transnationalism,” Sergei Abashin argues that asking the question “how does one begin to see oneself as a migrant?” may be a more useful way to analyze migration than asking “who are the migrants?” He highlights the importance of everyday practices, local communities, and transnational space in determining how people who see themselves as belonging to migrant communities answer this question.

Abashin begins by examining how the term “migrant” is defined in official discourse, showing that usage of the term in Russian government documents and statements is often inconsistent and ambiguous. He then shows how everyday conceptions of migrants and migration are tied into ideas about ethnic identity and national belonging that often diverge from the existing formal definitions of migration. As a result of these inconsistencies, Abashin calls for researchers to focus on ethnographic accounts of being a migrant, rather than limiting themselves to examining formal statistics on migration and drawing policy prescriptions on the basis of such findings.

Iana Strel’tsova’s article, “Integrating Immigrants in an Economic Crisis,” compares the Russian experience of migrant integration to that of France. On the basis of this comparison, Strel’tsova finds that multiculturalism has a poor record of success on the ground in terms of achieving the occupational, social, linguistic–cultural, and political integration of temporary and permanent immigrants.

Strel’tsova argues that governments need to take this record into account in devising integration programs and setting related policy goals. She believes that Russian officials formulating the country’s migration policy need to ensure that the existing ethnocultural and linguistic balance is maintained. She calls for policies that take into account both the state’s ethnic diversity and “the special role played by the ethnic majority—the Russian people—and by the Russian language created by this people.”

Ol’ga Vendina, in “Migrants in Russian Cities,” examines the history of migration to urban areas in Russia and the Soviet Union. Using the demographic history of Moscow as an example, she argues that the placement of particular emphasis on concepts such as “ethnic minority,” “migrant,” and “diaspora” in Russian cities impedes the formation of a culturally diverse, responsive modern urban civilization.

Vendina calls for making a distinction between the concept of an ethnic group and that of an ethnic minority. She shows that people can consider themselves to be members of an ethnic group without regarding themselves as ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities, furthermore, are a social group that focuses on common interests and threats to the group, rather than their group’s ethnic or cultural distinctiveness. In this environment, Vendina argues that the best way for the government to ensure “amicable cohabitation” between migrants and long-term residents is to encourage cultural pluralism. She is not optimistic that the Russian government is capable of pursuing such a policy.

In “Ethnic and Migration Policy in the 2000s Viewed in the Context of Relations Between the Federal Center and the Regions,” Vladimir Mukomel’ examines the connection between federal migration and nationalities policies. He discusses trends in these policies at both the federal and regional levels, arguing that most of the constructive activity over the last few years has taken place in the regions rather than in the center.

Mukomel’ highlights the problems inherent in a situation where the federal government controls migration while the regions are given responsibility for nationalities policy. This situation leads to various discrepancies and contradictions that damage the rights of members of migrant groups. Without a greater effort to coordinate policies across different levels of government, levels of social tension are likely to increase.

The last two articles in this issue provide some prescriptions for Russia’s migration policy. In “Russia Needs a New Migration Policy,” Sergei Riazantsev argues that Russia’s new migration policy fails to respond to the needs of the time and neglects international experience. He believes that to fulfill its objectives, the state should work to reduce emigration, encourage educational and business migration, make the quota system for foreign workers more transparent, and improve data collection on migration.

Andrei Molchanov’s “Meet the Migrants” presents an official perspective on migration, as the author is a member of the Federation Council. Molchanov highlights the extent of labor migration into the Russian Federation and the problems that it causes both in the labor market and in social interactions involving migrants. He discusses progress in the formulation of official migration policy and seeks to eliminate the link between labor migration and the formation of ethnic enclaves in population centers, which for Molchanov are linked with both illegal activity and the formation of negative attitudes toward migrants among the population. His goals amount to the promulgation of an integration program that would speed the adaptation of migrants and their children to “the cultural norms of Russian society.”

Migration remains a complex and difficult issue for the Russian state and for Russian society. The need for migrant labor is counterbalanced by the danger of rising xenophobic and anti-migrant attitudes among large segments of the Russian population. Successfully balancing these issues is a task at which far more effective states than Russia have failed.

Russian Politics and Law, May 2013 Table of Contents

Volume 51 Number 3 / May-June 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

This issue contains:

Migration Policy in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Central Asian Migration: Practices, Local Communities, Transnationalism  p. 6
Sergei Abashin
Integrating Immigrants in an Economic Crisis: (European and Russian Experience)  p. 21
Iana Strel’tsova
Migrants in Russian Cities  p. 48
Ol’ga Vendina
Ethnic and Migration Policy in the 2000s Viewed in the Context of Relations Between the Federal Center and the Regions  p. 66
Vladimir Mukomel’
Russia Needs a New Migration Policy  p. 80
Sergei Riazantsev
Meet the Migrants  p. 89
Andrei Molchanov

Multiculturalism à la Russe?

Here’s an interview I just did with RIA-Novosti’s Valdai Club. It originally appeared here: http://valdaiclub.com/culture/52720.html.


In your opinion, is there any tension between ethnic Russians and so-called Muslim communities in large cites like Moscow and Saint Petersburg?

Sure, of course there is tension. I think there are different kinds of tension, depending on the communities. One of the more visible forms is tension between migrants from the Caucasus and Russians in the major cities. But not just in the major cities. A few years ago, we saw the riots in Kondopoga. So you mentioned Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it goes beyond them, there are a lot of smaller communities too, and in places where there’s a sizable presence of different groups, there can be tension.

The tension comes from both sides. On the one hand, there are migrants coming in, who are trying to preserve a somewhat different culture from what they’re finding in the new place. And so that leads to resistance from the people who have lived there longer – from the dominant culture, let’s say. But on the other hand, the migrants are responding to discrimination from the majority group, so there are sources of tension on both sides.

Does Russia have a thoughtful ethnic policy? Or do Russian authorities try to solve problems ad hoc?

There is a policy, but it’s somewhat rudimentary. It’s more of an inertial policy, in that rather than actively trying to shape the situation, it’s continuing policies that are partially left over from the Soviet Union, and partially left over from the Yeltsin period. So Russia still has the big overarching set of institutions with ethnic regions, for example, left over from the Soviet Union, and it really hasn’t been modified very much in terms of how these republics operate.  On the regional level, there’s less freedom to implement policies on ethnic culture and language than there was in the Yeltsin period. But it’s more a matter of degree, rather than a categorical difference.

On the other hand, there were changes from the Soviet to the Yeltsin period. For example, eliminating the requirement to list one’s nationality in forms and in the internal passport made it easier for people to change their ethnic identity, if they chose to do so. But that was something that was implemented already in 1997 or ’98. And so, what’s been going on since then is the political leadership trying not to rock the boat too much.

Apart from politics and political rights in the USSR what is worthy in the idea of Soviet supranational identity?

I think it’s a necessary idea that any country that wants to maintain itself as a united country needs to have some identity that includes everyone who lives there. So the Soviet identity, then this Rossiskaya identity that came in after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were very much needed. The innovation is not this supra-ethnic identity, because there are lots of countries in the world that do this. Let’s say South Africa has a lot of different ethnic groups, each of which has an ethnic identity, but there’s also an idea that everyone is also a citizen of South Africa, so there’s this distinction between ethnic identity and what we might call national identity. That’s common around the world.

The Soviet innovation was to try to make a different kind of category, this idea of the Soviet people – Sovetsky narod – where it was being promoted concurrently with ethnic identities and for a period of time almost as an alternative to those identities. It didn’t last long enough to really change identities. And it was countered, because there wasn’t any real way for people to shift to just the Soviet identity. So in that sense, it didn’t really turn into an overarching identity that everyone could accept. But if it were not for the need for people to state their nationality in their passports, etc, in a few more decades it could have led to the creation of a real supra-ethnic identity. I don’t know if this would have been a good thing or not, but it would certainly have led to a very different political environment.

Can you see any voids in Russian legislation pertinent to ethnic policy? Which norms and acts need to be adjusted in order to regulate relations between ethnic communities in Russia?

I don’t think that necessarily legislation is what is needed. I see it more in the realm of policy rather than law, so what is needed, to my mind, is more effective measures to integrate newcomers to a city or a town with people who have lived there for a while, in terms of education and mechanisms for adjustment. I’m not sure that a legal change, a big law, would be necessary.

What would be very much counterproductive is if the government followed through on the occasional proposals to get rid of ethnic republics and replace them with non-ethnic regions, such as having Kazanskaya oblast instead of Tatarstan. If the government started from a completely blank slate, then that might be an option, although it would lead very quickly to assimilation of minorities, so that would certainly not be a good thing for the minority groups. But in the current situation where ethnic republics already exist, it’s a recipe for instability, not just negatively affecting just the minority groups, but also leading to tension and conflict.

So I don’t think that a grand new law to change relations between ethnic groups is the way to go. What Russia needs instead is more grass-roots measures to help minority groups adjust to their new environment, together with efforts to train the police not to discriminate against minority groups, because like I said, it works both ways; the police’s biased attitude towards minority groups and migrants certainly aggravates their grievances.