Thursday, June 28, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia Wrestles with Two Problems Very Familiar to Americans

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 28 – Many of the problems that the Russian Federation faces are sui generis reflecting its unique experience as a country still recovering from the communist past. But some of its difficulties are familiar to other advanced, industrialized countries, albeit typically with a special Russian twist.
Two of those problems – redrawing of single-member legislative districts in advance of elections and trade-offs between providing citizenship to illegal immigrants as compared to allowing more immigrants to come in rather than legalizing those already there – attracted the attention of the Russian media this week.
In Buryatia, election officials presented a new map of that republic’s electoral districts to the local parliament. Conforming to federal law, the new districts were roughly equal in terms of the number of voters, generally compact and always contiguous, and typically drawn along existing municipal lines.
With those criteria in mind, officials drew five different kinds of the 33 districts: the first included those whose borders followed municipal ones, the second included isolated areas, the third of those which divided existing municipal units, the fourth which included several existing units and the fifth including parts of two municipal units.
Because they had worked on this map for many months and because federal law requires that these districts be approved at least 120 days before any vote, election commission officials had hoped to get the People’s Khural, as the Buryat legislature is known, to approve them yesterday.
But the deputies said no (
Some objected to the fact that the republic’s capital, Ulan-Ude, had lost a district. Others said that combining municipal areas destroyed communities. And still a third group – and media coverage suggests this may have been the largest -- said that “they could not find their own districts” on the new map.
Now, the election commission has to come up with a new map and do it quickly. If Buryatia is to be in compliance with national law, a new redistricting plan must be approved by August 13. Whether yet another map will satisfy the deputies remains very much uncertain.
The other problem, familiar to Americans in particular at the present time, concerns how or even whether any country should legalize illegal immigrants already living and working on its territory or conversely treat them as severely as existing law requires while attracting new legal ones.
This week marks the first anniversary of Moscow’s effort, so far extraordinarily unsuccessful, to attract ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers from abroad to return to the Russian Federation and thus help to stem that country’s demographic decline of more than one million people a year.
Many media outlets have featured articles about Russia’s difficulties in this regard, and “Itogi” talked with Lidia Grafova, the head of the Moscow-based Forum of Resettlement Organizations, about this issue. Her comments seem certain to anger many Russians (
As have her counterparts in other countries, Grafova suggested it would be far easier, cheaper and more effective to provide legal status to the millions of people who have already arrived than to attract a few hundred thousand people who have not yet made the decision to leave their current homes and come to Russia.
If Moscow had appealed to ethnic Russians in other countries to return 12 years ago, Grafova said, it might have had significant success. But now many of those people have either found a new life in the countries where they are or returned to work in Russia illegally.
Changing their minds now, she said, would be very expensive. “Legalizing” those already there would cost the state relatively little on balance. Yes, the state would have to pay pensions, provide schools, and offer medical care, she acknowledged. But the newly legalized “would [begin to] pay taxes” that would cover most or all of these costs.
Despite more than 18 years of working with immigrants, Grafova said, she had not been able to find out “why the Presidential Administration has blocked the offer of an immigration amnesty” and instead pushed for attracting new immigrants through the program that is now one year old.
But then she answers her own question: Grafova notes that employers are actually glad to have illegals. They can pay them less and treat them less well. And she points out that “migrantophobia” is now so widespread in Russia that few politicians are willing to display the kind of courage that would help the country.

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