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A Second Front in the Fight Against Migration

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (April 29 — May 3)

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The Russian authorities are continuing their public battle with labour migrants from Central Asian countries. Thousands of Tajik citizens who wanted to come to Russia to work are currently stuck at land border checkpoints and airports. Popular Telegram channels are spreading the word that it will soon be more difficult for citizens of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two countries from which a significant proportion of all migrant workers in Russia hail, to enter the country. More and more regional governors are issuing orders banning migrants from working in various sectors (most often as taxi drivers). This is how the Russian leadership reacted to the terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall on 22 March this year, in which around 150 people were killed. Citizens of Tajikistan have been charged with this crime. The terrorist attack has caused a predictable wave of anti-migrant sentiment that politicians and law enforcement officials are trying to ride.

However, even pro-government sociologists admit that the outbreak of negative attitudes towards remittance or migrant workers will be short-lived, as Russians have begun to treat migrants better over time. Most likely, these sentiments will gradually fade, even if the regime’s current policies and actions help to reignite them. From a strategic perspective, the Kremlin will only suffer from its current actions. First, Russia suffered from an acute labour shortage even before it introduced additional obstacles for migrant workers. Restrictions on labour migrants threaten to cause a serious crisis in the construction industry, and the service and transport sectors will also suffer. It may well turn out that there will simply be no one left to work in the country, including on the large-scale construction projects planned under the national projects (in fact, Putin’s election program).

Secondly, the leaders of the Central Asian countries have so far remained loyal to the Kremlin. The presidents of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan attend the events organised by Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the presidential administration. Their presence is intended to prove to the Russians that, despite the war and all the plotting and the intrigues of the West, the country continues to cooperate with its trusted partners and that there is no question of international isolation. Moreover, Russia benefits economically and geopolitically from its friendship with the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia. However, restrictions imposed on migrants (whether explicit or implicit) could disrupt this friendship. The ability to earn a living in Russia reduces social tensions in neighbouring countries and also serves as an important source of revenue for these countries’ economies. For the leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, interacting with the Kremlin has simply been advantageous: a familiar partner often seems better than potential friends.

And such friends do exist. First, China has long been ready to hijack the status of the main partner for the Central Asian countries. Second, Western countries are also making offers of friendship (mutually beneficial, of course). Even hypothetical benefits from cooperation with China and the West may be better than friendship with no benefits with Russia. Therefore, if the country’s anti-immigration policy continues, the Kremlin’s long-time partners and friends may soon turn away.

This is not the first time that the Russian leadership has chosen tactical gains that will lead to strategic defeats, and such choices do not contribute to the stability of the power vertical. The chaotic and ill-considered fight against migrant workers is a good case in point.

Broken social elevator going nowhere

For a long time, the Kremlin has been trying to present participation in the war and work in Donbass as the most reliable and, above all, the most efficient social elevator there is, both for citizens who have nothing to do with the civil service and for current officials and MPs. For the former, the doors to various levels of the administration and the assemblies of deputies were to be opened wide, while the latter were promised career heights unimaginable before the outbreak of the full-scale war. Such promises were made by the country’s top leadership in 2022 and 2023, and they are still being made. In the first two years of the full-scale military invasion, there was no significant influx of cadres recruited from among the war veterans and the «Donbass reserve» into government positions. A few dozen frontline soldiers became elected representatives at various levels (usually local), although there were several thousand vacancies to fill. Only two officials who had worked in the annexed territories have made it to the governor’s office, but then these two officials had been considered promising candidates for the posts of heads of regions even before the start of the full-scale war. All of this is probably due to the fact that the mechanisms of personnel promotion could not have been adjusted so quickly had it not been for this year’s situation. The presidential administration is still making career promises and has even launched a programme called «Time of Heroes» for war veterans, while the «United Russia» party has promised them preferential treatment in its primaries. But it turned out that very few war veterans applied for the ruling party’s primaries, and even fewer wanted to stand in the parliamentary elections, at least at the regional level.

And these isolated cases are all characters who are quite well known in the pro-war circles. For example, the commander of the «Alyosha» tank crew wants to run the elections for the State Council of Tatarstan. Obviously, the war veterans are aware that they will not get serious positions. In fact, being an MP at regional and local level has become a social burden for high-ranking public sector employees: headmasters, directors of hospitals and museums. Most regional deputies, with the exception of the chairperson of the regional assembly and a few of his or her deputies, do not even receive a salary, and in local councils only the position of chairperson is usually paid. War veterans and civil servants who have worked in Donbass do not get really high-level bureaucratic positions either. The authorities are willing to offer them jobs at the municipal level as heads of smaller towns, districts and settlements. These jobs were not among the most attractive ones even before the invasion was launched. Now these «soldiers of fortune» are realising that it is much more profitable to be at the front and earn hundreds of thousands of rubles than to spend time and energy as an unpaid deputy or to work as an official for a salary many times lower. Officials and political technologists working for the Kremlin who had gone to the so-called «new territories» (the occupied territories of Ukraine) in the hope of a very fast career growth are now increasingly aware of this as well. They are abandoning their posts and returning to the «big country». So the Kremlin will either have to update the «software» of the social elevator, make it a showcase, albeit a small one, by appointing at least a few people to really attractive positions. Or it will have to quietly shut down the entire project of «Front-Donbass» as a promise of social mobility, since the money that can be received monthly at the front exceeds the official salaries of vice-governors and mid-level federal officials.

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