Staunton, January 27 – Russia’s attraction of gastarbeiters from the former Soviet republics in recent years was “the main and most reliable integration instrument” Moscow had over that space, but now, thanks to the collapse of the economy and harsh restrictions on immigration, Russia has lost both migrants and that source of attraction as well.
As a result, Semyon Novoprudsky says in “Gazeta,” the departure of migrant workers and the unlikelihood that many of them will ever return marks the final destruction of “the Soviet empire,” parts of which – such as Ukraine in particular -- some in Moscow at the same time “strongly want to restore” (gazeta.ru/comments/column/novoprudsky/6384557.shtml).
Prior to the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine more generally, the central issue in the Russian media was not the Sochi Olympics but rather the impact of gastarbeiters on Russian society and what Moscow should do about them. Many were afraid that the migrant workers were overwhelming Russian cities.
That led to pogroms and to demands that the gastarbeiters be sent home, but “the ruble turned out to be more frightening than the pogrom,” and with its collapse, “the Russian labor market rapidly lost its importance for unskilled migrants” and ultimately for more skilled ones as well.
Given Russia’s economic problems, the journalist points out, “Ukrainian migrants rapidly shifted their attention to Poland and other EU countries; the Tajiks and … the Uzbeks preferred to return home or go to Kazakhstan. And besides this, people from Central Asian countries began more frequently to migrate to China.”
And higher skilled immigrants followed when it became obvious that Russia was no longer “in a position to pay them their promised salaries.” Moreover, just as the economy was entering its crisis, the Russian authorities tightened the rules governing migrant workers and that sent their number plummeting as well and for a long time to come.
Before Ukraine, migrants were so important as a source of integration in the post-Soviet space that the Kyrgyzstan government held an emergency meeting when Moscow closed the Cherkizov market and cash transfers from gastarbeiters in Russia constituted “more than half of the GDP” of Tajikistan.
“That is real dependence,” Novoprudsky says, dependence far in excess of anything that the Customs Union or Eurasian Economics Union could ensure. And it came without the costs involved of dispatching “polite little green men to demonstrate the power of ‘the empire,” indeed without Moscow having to do anything at all.
But the economic crisis combined with Russian xenophobia has meant that the nationalists’ cry of a year ago, “Stop Feeding the Caucasus!” now needs to be updated and in a way not helpful to Russia. Now, Russians can’t do it because now in place of the Caucasus, they have the burden of “feeding” Crimea or the Donbas.
Despite what some think, Russians are “losing their own real last fundamental competitive advantage for post-Soviet states – an attractive labor market for the residents of those countries which are even poorer.” Some will still be desperate enough to come, but far fewer.
That isn’t the main problem, however. Migrant flows say something about the kind of societies people want: People who move from one country to another do so because they prefer their options in the latter. Consequently, countries which attract people have an advantage over those that don’t.
Until recently, Russia was among the countries gastarbeiters most often wanted to go and that represented “possibly its only economic achievement after the disintegration of the USSR.” Now, unless Moscow changes course, “Russia will finally become for its neighbor simply a large alien country and a dangerous one too if one thinks about Georgia and Ukraine.”
Many people do not realize that after 1991, Russia was not a country with a net outflow of population. For all the past 24 years, more people have come than left. But now it appears, Novoprudsky says, that the current Russian government has decided to “correct” that achievement.