Attracting Migrants to Russia:

for Work or War?

May 12, 2023
  • Vlada Baranova
    Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies; Exodus-22

Vlada Baranova writes that the need for labor migrants is growing due to inevitable population decline and outlines

the contradictions within Russia’s migration policy.

From 2018 through early 2023, Russia’s population has been steadily declining. Over the past year, it shrank 0.4%. For a number of years, the population decline was partially offset by inflows of migrants: it is difficult to say to what extent, since experts believe that official estimates on migration strongly diverge with reality. The agencies that deal with migrants often change how they count them (this explains the spike in migration in 2019), while the data within the system is often opaque. As Caress Schenk points out, “official labor migration data depends on human interactions between state actors and migrants in a Russian migration center.”

Migration had supported the workforce, but during the pandemic, mortality increased and migration flows decreased, meaning the balance was upset. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the situation changed significantly due to emigration and war deaths.

After the start of the war and the mobilization, many Russians left the country. Estimates differ significantly, as the recent emigrants are not renouncing their citizenship and permanent registration where they lived in Russia, while border-crossing data reflects not only emigration, but also tourist flows. What is important is that people who left make up a considerable percentage of the workforce. According to the data of our research group Exodus-22 and estimates of colleagues, it is mostly young people with incomes and education much higher than average, i.e. people who made a major contribution to the economy.

Pro-government experts are aware that the absence of this group will weigh on the economy – hence the public initiatives to bring back people who left and attract new migrants. In this context, in March Federation Council Deputy Speaker Konstantin Kosachev urged against making fellow citizens who left into “opponents of the state.”

Another reason for the decline in labor resources is losses in the war. Though the exact number of killed and wounded is unknown, BBC and Mediazona journalists estimate that deaths exceed 20,000.
Sberbank advertisement: "Son, thanks for helping me out! Come home, I'll cook you pilaf." (Moscow, 2021). Text on the bottom right: "This is how you send your love. Sberbank Online."
Workforce or manpower?

Since January, a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs program for voluntary migration to Russia has been restarted in Tajikistan. However, the Russian authorities are primarily seeking to attract new citizens to fight in the war, not to replace departed specialists.

At the end of September 2022, amendments were adopted to simplify the procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for “foreigners who entered into a contract to serve in the Russian Armed Forces for a period of at least one year.” Human rights activist Valentina Chupik cites a case of Uzbek citizens who worked at a construction site being tricked into signing military contracts.

According to anecdotal evidence, advertisements for military contracts are being given out at migration centers. In Moscow public transport, calls for contract service appeared in the Uzbek language, though they were removed in December 2022.
“In April, officials met in St Petersburg with diaspora leaders and ‘employment agencies’ to discuss recruiting migrants for contract service.”
Personal ad in Uzbek: "Job, opportunity. Cook, cook's assistant, cleaner" (St Petersburg, 2021)
At the same time, the authorities persistently warn migrants that unconditional loyalty is required of them: on April 18, in the second reading the Duma adopted an amendment to deprive acquired Russian citizenship for actions that “threaten national security,” including “discrediting” the army and involvement in an “undesirable organization.”

Citizens of the poorest countries, mainly in Central Asia, are accepting such terms for obtaining Russian citizenship. However, previously people with dual citizenship often did not plan to live in Russia permanently: it was “strategic” citizenship to simplify working in Russia and get a Russian pension in the future, among other things.

As studies conducted in Tajikistan show, people seek dual citizenship when there is high labor market uncertainty in their own country. In the past, dual citizenship provided additional mobility and flexibility in making decisions about work and place of residence (or at least many migrants counted on this).

Now, dual citizenship carries additional risks: of being mobilized and sent to war, as well as criminal liability in one’s own country (the embassies of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have issued statements about criminal liability for involvement in hostilities on the territory of a foreign state).

It would seem that reports of losses, as well as the stories of fellow countrymen who fought, should affect people’s desire to obtain Russian citizenship. However, the available data is contradictory: in 2022, the number of citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan who took Russian citizenship rose, though the number of applicants from other post-Soviet countries slightly fell (it should be noted that six months usually passes between an application for citizenship and its receipt, so better data will be available in 2023).

As our 2022 interviews with emigrants in Armenia show, some Russians who moved there are the second generation of migrants from Armenia to Russia. Their parents moved to Russia in the 1990s, when Armenia was going through very hard times economically, and obtained Russian citizenship with great difficulty. Their children, often already born in Russia, frequently faced xenophobia there and are now moving to Armenia, which is a foreign country for many of them.

The families of some respondents came to Yerevan only once every few years, while others spent their holidays there, learned Armenian and retained their citizenship. In 2022, 13,865 Russian citizens received or restored Armenian citizenship. All of them are ethnic Armenians or spouses of Armenians, as in Armenia that is an unconditional requirement for obtaining citizenship.

Migration policy and nationalism

Along with the measures to attract migrants, a counter trend is rising in Russia: ambitions to limit the presence of foreigners and tighten language policy. In March 2023, the Ministry of Internal Affairs proposed introducing a “language rating” for migrants and fining them for low scores.

However, many initiatives remain declarations or, even if adopted, will not actually be enforced. For example, in the summer of 2022, Russia canceled or postponed additional, invasive medical checks for labor migrants, which were supposed to commence in March 2022.
The contradictory migration policy is attributable to the urgent need to replenish manpower for the war.
In addition, an important factor is the rise of nationalism in state propaganda, which is finding support across the public.

Judging by surveys, Russians are aware that the economy needs a workforce, but their attitude toward migrants can be described as: you can work for us, but do it quietly, and then go home. At the everyday level, this attitude is manifested in a reluctance to send children to schools where there are many immigrants, as well as in negative reactions to the sound of other languages in the urban space. Russian-speaking residents of St Petersburg said in interviews conducted by the author in 2018 that they do not distinguish between “Uzbek or other Asian languages,” but they are uncomfortable hearing people speak a language they do not understand.

In the study of multilingualism in the language landscape mentioned above, respondents said that they were uncomfortable with languages other than Russian in signs at ethnic cafes and markets and in advertisements (interviews with migrants as part of the study showed that employers often demand that they only speak Russian and even fine them for using their native languages in the workplace).

The war in Ukraine has been accompanied by nationalist propaganda that denies Ukrainian statehood and emphasizes the virtue of the Russian people. At the everyday level, the word russkii – which denotes ethnicity, not citizenship – is being more actively used. One of the clearest examples of this trend is the song Ya russkii (I’m Russian) by an artist who calls himself SHAMAN, which gained immense popularity in 2022. The song, as music critic Alexander Gorbachev wrote in RP, “proclaims the superiority of Russians.”

Thus, the previous bargain of “you get citizenship, but do not live here, only work” has been quietly replaced by a new one: “do not live here, because we hate foreigners, but do go and die for our interests.”
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