Unpopular President Offers Immigration Reform; Pundits Skeptical

Facing pressure from his political base, and trying to resolve his country’s seemingly intractable issues with illegal immigration, the leader of one of the world’s largest countries has recently announced a major change in immigration policy. No, I’m not referring to President Obama’s announcement last Friday to extend administrative relief to some young illegal immigrants to the United States. Rather, notes Evgeny Kuzmin at EurasiaNet, Vladimir Putin signed off recently to major changes (here in English, here in Russian) in the Russian Federation’s State Migration Policy. In what would appear to be a gesture to the ultra-nationalist forces in Russia that support Putin, the new policy foresees new, stricter guidelines for labor migrants wishing to work in Russia. “To qualify under the rules,” writes Kuzmin,

Foreigners will now have to pass exams on a variety of topics, including proficiency in Russian language and history.

Russian migration agencies were instructed by Putin to develop the specifics of the plan, including the actual tests, by November 2012. White-collar professionals, as well as those with new-economy skills, such as computer programming, are exempt from the tests.

These initial policy changes form the first prong of a multi-decade attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. Some of the long-term goals foreseen in the Kremlin’s documents are bound to raise eyebrows. The plan projects, for example, that the total population of the Russian Federation should reach 142.8-145.6 million people by 2025. That might not sound like much, but that figure is already significantly higher than what the World Bank predicted in 2006 – a median scenario of 111 million people and an optimistic scenario of around 135 million people, both of which are still less than Russia’s current population of 143 million. None of these figures, moreover, get into more complex trends like the ‘graying’ of an already-old Russian population, and the possible emergence of Russia as a Muslim-majority country by mid-century.

Guarding Russia’s borders, land and aquatic

But that’s not the only part of the plan that’s find curious. “It is assumed”, continues the plan, “that the implementation of the third stage will result in a migration inflow to the Siberian and Far Eastern regions by 2026.” This wouldn’t be a bad idea, in theory. Russia could have an important role to play as a supplier of energy and water in the Pacific Century that appears to be emerging, and some Russian academics have even floated the idea of turning dreary Vladivostok into a third capital to facilitate Russia having a “window to Asia.” But who is going to board the eight and a half hour flight from beautiful Petersburg or dynamic Moscow for the Primorsky Krai?

Glamorous Vladivostok, only a mere 8-hour flight from Moscow

Given all the comment in recent months about Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East, it can be easy to forget some of the more prosaic issues that nonetheless animate Russian domestic political debate. Issues like immigration –  Russia receives the most immigrants in the world second only to the United States – will shape the future of what may be a declining great power, but one that is still eager to prove in matters in the world, as Moscow’s support of Damascus has underscored. I can only hope that President Putin’s plan succeeds at creating the legal basis for a flourishing Russian middle class, one able to benefit from Russia’s entry into the WTO and eager to have children and raise families from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean. Like the United States, Russia needs to accept and integrate immigrants to do the jobs that many Russians won’t, and to contribute to a Russian identity based not on ultra-nationalism and racism, but on the country’s unique position between Europe and Asia. A shrinking Russia, or a Russia without sensible immigration controls, is likely to feel more insecure about its future. It might feel more reluctant to help facilitate education and jobs for its Muslim communities, and it might continue to sponsor despots in Islamic countries not only out of national interest, but out of a fear of domestic reprisal by Islamist radicals.

As with the recent proposal of his counterpart in Washington, some skepticism is probably still warranted when it comes to  this particular immigration reform proposal. But as immigrants become more and more crucial to the demographic and economic success of countries in a graying world hollowed out by recession, on this occasion I wish the Presidents of the world’s two largest immigration-receiving countries good luck as they devise new policies to accommodate these changes.


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