Over the last couple of years we have mentioned on this blog the demographic plight of Russia on a number of different occasions.  (See for example, here and here and here. For some of the attempts to increase Russian fertility see here and here and here and here.) Now there are signs over the last couple of years that the Russian demographic malaise is improving, the fertility rate is trending upwards, the mortality rate is trending downwards and the population decline is slowing down.  However, despite these promising signs, Russia has had to rely on large scale immigration to combat the decline in its native workforce, particularly in Moscow.  According to this article from the Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir, the social results of this large-scale (and virtually uncontrolled) immigration are grim.  First, why are there so many immigrants in large Russian cities?

“The country’s aging population, compounded by a collapse in birthrates during the 1990s, has put Russia into a demographic crisis that could strain its industry, agriculture, and armed forces. In the next decade, demographic experts expect Russia’s native labor force to shrink by more than 12 million, or around 15 percent…‘There has been improvement in population indicators over the past decade, including reduced mortality and rising fertility. These results are real,’ says Mr. Denisov, the demographer. But he adds that the improvement is not enough to head off the coming huge slump in the native labor force, and the jury is still out on how it will affect Russia’s long-term demographic crisis.”

Thus, the native labour force needs to be topped up from outside Russia.

“According to Konstantin Romodanovsky, head of the Federal Migration Service, there are about 1.8 million foreigners working legally in Russia, and at least 3 million who are working here illegally, mostly in centers like Moscow. Some experts estimate vastly higher numbers of illegal immigrants.

Driven from their former Soviet Central Asian homelands or Russia’s own insurrection-plagued Northern Caucasus by extreme poverty, unemployment, war, and political oppression, the migrants pass through Russia’s virtually unregulated southeastern borders, striving to reach the relative prosperity of Moscow and a few other bustling centers. Putin-era Moscow, fueled by an oil boom that’s only now petering out, offers plenty of low-end job opportunities that are at least slightly better than those most of these people left behind.”

Indeed, as Weir claims, if these migrant workers were to disappear, “whole sections of Moscow’s economy would immediately shut down”.  Instead of relying on technological changes or increased productivity, Russia has relied on migrant labour (of the legal or illegal kind) to fill its labour-force gap.  Unfortunately, there is little done by the Russian government to try and integrate these foreign workers into Russian society or to prepare the local community for this influx of millions of workers with different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.  According to Weir, the Moscow police does keep track of these workers, but only to “take advantage of their lack of documentation to extract bribes”. 

“‘Migrants tend to live in very hard conditions, often up to 40 people in one apartment, and they don’t follow the rules of Moscow life,’ says Leonid Gusev, an expert with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. ‘The concentrations of them in Moscow are getting so high that the local population cannot digest it. There are no special programs in Russia to help them integrate into society. The situation is becoming so serious that nobody knows what to do next.’”

It is of little surprise that there are some in the local Muscovite population that are less than welcoming of migrant workers.  This is partly to do with fear of the other. Partly to do with the separate lives that migrants live: congregating with fellow migrants in “parallel communities”.  Partly it is also because criminal organisations sometimes travel with the migrants and take root in the new immigrant populations in Moscow.  With many of the migrants coming from Muslim territories (within and without Russia’s borders) there is also the background of terrorism and war in Chechnya to fuel tensions.  Anti-immigrant views are far from unpopular in Russian cities:

“Workers from Russia’s own mainly Muslim territories, primarily the Northern Caucasus, are Russian citizens and not counted as migrants by police. But Alexander Belov, head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration – one of the more “moderate” of Russia’s growing number of nationalist groups – says there is effectively no difference, and they all should leave.

‘I don’t separate legal migrants from illegal ones,’ Mr. Belov says. ‘Whether they have documents, jobs, and a place to live or not, they are all people of a different culture and aliens to Russian life. They come here, establish their own orders, live according to their own rules, and protect themselves regardless of local laws and public customs.

‘Average Muscovites are unable to resist the power of these ethnic clans, and as a result the fears of ordinary Russians are developing into hatred,’ he says.”

Then, earlier this year, the stabbing  to death of a Slavic Russian man allegedly in a quarrel with a migrant from Azerbaijan led to a riot by thousands of residents in the industrial district of Biryulyovo.  Police intervened when the rioters started scaling the fence of a vegetable warehouse known to employ hundreds of illegal migrants.  400 rioters were arrested, 70 received fines and two were charged with “hooliganism”, a charge that carries a potential prison sentence. Perhaps to appease the local residents, the police then moved in on the illegal immigrant community:

“But in the days that followed, police rounded up more than 1,000 alleged illegal immigrants in the vegetable warehouse and other Moscow locations. Mayor Sobyanin subsequently ordered police to stage regular raids every Friday on apartments and other places where migrants might congregate, and ensure that the results of such raids are made known to the public.

But most experts regard such crackdowns as an empty response, a bit of theater to convince the public that something is being done.”

In Russia, the immigrant workforce (whether illegal or legal) is a necessary part of the economy.  Russians in the last two decades have failed to have enough children to replace the current generation and (especially the men) have died much younger than in many other nations.  Thus the workforce must be bolstered from outside. While this is an economic necessity, it is causing social disruption and conflict. While the USA, for example, has a history of fairly successfully accommodating waves of migrants throughout its history, Russia currently is doing a much worse job at integration.  As Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow says:

“‘…the overwhelming majority of [migrants] come illegally, because it’s in the interests of employers to keep them helpless and dependent, and it’s very much to the profit of officialdom and police to keep things this way. It’s all fueled by corruption…under our present regime, where so many officials have a finger in the cash flow from illegal labor, we can already see that nothing is going to change. That means we should brace ourselves for more social outbursts, because they will be coming.’”

A grim prophecy indeed.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...