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Analysis & Opinion
08.06.10 Cutting Residents Loose
By Tai Adelaja

Is Russia on the threshold of a second revolution? This is the question on many minds as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the author of “managed democracy” and the “power vertical,” puts his weight behind efforts to remove the last vestiges of “propiska” (a citizen’s permanent registration), the Soviet tool for controlling internal migration. But the ability to move around Russia freely comes with a price tag: the overstrained infrastructure of Russia’s big cities could collapse under the pressure added by migrants, while the vast expanse of the country’s rural territories will remain undeveloped and essentially abandoned to their fate.

Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin instructed federal agencies to ease the existing internal movement rules – a move experts say could rid Russia of the last relic of the Soviet monitor-and-control system. Putin has directed the Economic Development Ministry and the Media and Communications Ministry to team with the Federal Migration Service (FMS) in putting together the proposal that he said must be ready by late August, The Moscow Times reported on Monday. The proposed changes would allow Russians to travel freely around the country and change their place of residence without asking for permission from officials. “This concerns temporary migration within the country,” the FMS spokesman Konstantin Poltoranin said. “We have already started a test-service to see how temporary registration could be done through the Internet. This is a pilot program designed to test the waters and see how it works out.”

The FMS first announced in February that it would do away with internal migration procedures, which many Russians find humiliating and time-consuming. Vladimir Vorsobin, writing for the Komsomolskaya Pravda, said that in its boldness this move is only comparable to the emancipation of serfs in 1860. “Perhaps you can call this a revolution,” Poltoranin said. “Hopefully, in the near future, permanent registration will become a thing of the past. We have made changes and we want to apply those changes to those citizens who temporarily move around the territory of Russia, so that they could simply notify the authorities by mail of their movement from one region to another. The same [measure] is going to be applied to Russian citizens with a permanent residence.”

According to the FMS draft bill, instead of the present requirement to “register at one’s place of residence,” a Russian citizen can simply send a notification letter of his whereabouts to the immigration authorities. Poltoranin said that no final approval has been received yet, but that the FMS intends to go ahead with plans to submit a draft bill to the State Duma next year. “This will elevate the status of Russian citizens to that of the Europeans, and they could roam around their own country without asking for permission from government officials,” Vorsobin wrote.

By a rule that endured from the tsarist through to the Soviet times, Russian citizens were required to carry documents affixed with their permanent addresses and their photographs. Any relevant changes to such documents must be recorded at a passport desk, which is controlled by the local office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). By the age of 45, a person has to have three photographs in the passport – taken at the age of 16, 25 and 45 – to compensate for the effects of aging.

The passport system was first introduced by the Bolsheviks in December of 1932 and was used to control and monitor the place of residence by means of a “propiska,” which binds a person to his or her permanent place of residence. Though the restrictions were eased between 1950 and 1960, the lack of private ownership of real estate makes a “propiska” at a certain address the only right a citizen has to a residence.

The new Russian Constitution adopted in 1993 tried to abolish this system. Article 27 states that “Everyone who is lawfully living on the territory of the Russian Federation shall have the right to freedom of movement and to choose a place to stay and reside.” However, the old system has remained largely entrenched and functional, with the possession of a valid “propiska” a necessary condition to receive higher education or medical treatment in many regions. Over the years, Russians have learned to circumvent the restrictions through marriage to a resident of another area or by enrolling for university education in another region. In Ukraine, the “propiska” was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s Constitutional Court in 2001.

Supporters of the measure claim that removing the restrictions would accelerate the internal mobility of labor, help internal migrants to receive benefits such as medical insurance, kindergarten and school enrolment and participation in federal programs such as affordable housing. In addition, migrant pensioners will be able to buy drugs and other goods at a discount.

The worsening demographic and labor situation in the country, especially after the crisis, is the main reason for the new government measure to ease registration rules, experts say. Figures from the Ministry of Economic Development show that Russia’s population will shrink by 500,000 people by the end of 2013. The flow of migrant workers dropped 15 percent to 17 million this year, as the global economic crisis led to massive job cuts, Mikhail Tyurkin, the deputy head of the Federal Migration Service, said Thursday. Even in the pre-crisis days, most migrant workers preferred to move to Moscow or St. Petersburg, where menial jobs are readily available.

But with the crisis discouraging migrant workers from coming, Russians from other regions could not readily fill their positions in places like Moscow, where the system of internal passport registration and control remains extremely strict for Russian citizens registered outside the city. “It's difficult for a Russian to move to a new job elsewhere,” President Dmitry Medvedev said last year. “That's why we need to support and encourage this.”

However, critics say that the measure, if implemented, could bring down the social security system in Russia. Sergei Mikheyev, the vice-president of the Center for Political Technologies, said that the government could use this measure as a pretext to abandon part of its social obligations by leaving people at the mercy of the “invisible hand of the market.” “Such a step can only perpetuate disparities in Russia’s regional development. Instead of investing in the developing the regions, the authorities are encouraging people to move into cities where it is easier find a job,” Mikheyev said in an article on the center’s Web site. “As a result, this will further exacerbate a long-dominant trend in which some places are left empty while others are unbearably populated.”

Abolishing the registration system, Mikheyev believes, could be used as an additional argument to cut back on the rank and file of the police force, as well as immigration officials, since fewer will be needed to check documents. Allowing free movement of labor will also put pressure on the already overstrained infrastructure in the so-called mega-cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, he said. “The burden in those cities is associated with the flow of migrants, both internal and external,” he said. “Yet the federal government is in no hurry to solve the problems of over-congestion, leaving municipal authorities to indulge in endless improvisation.”
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