Immigration Could Tear Russia Apart, Especially if Regions Adopt Their Own Approaches

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 41

Yamalo-Nenets gas field (Source: AFP)

Many Russians believe that the continuing influx of guest workers from Central Asia and the South Caucasus represents a security threat to their country either because of the supposed contributions of these groups to crime in Russian cities or because of the way in which their appearance has exacerbated ethnic tensions there. But a far more serious threat to the future of the Russian Federation, while related to immigration, has now appeared in regions far from Moscow.

The legislature in the gas-rich Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District wants to ban the entrance of all outsiders unless they receive permission in advance, and the legislators believe that their district’s status as a border region along with support from President Vladimir Putin override the Russian Constitution’s provision allowing free movement within the country. But if that federal subject takes such a step, others are likely to follow, destroying the country’s “common legal space” that Putin has labored to create and re-igniting the centrifugal forces that characterized Russia outside of Moscow in the 1990s.

The Salekhard deputies believe that the imposition of such restrictions are the only way that they can stop the flood of illegal immigrants into their district, one especially attractive to outsiders because it has the highest wages outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. They believe that as a border region, the Russian Constitution gives Yamalo-Nenets the right to set limits in order to protect the country’s security. And the local legislators are encouraged by Putin’s statement on December 20, 2012, that he supports this step because it is the only way to block the spread of illegal drugs (;

What makes the current legislative proposal so interesting is that the Yamalo-Nenets region already was, in effect, closed to outsiders. As of December 2012, only Russian citizens with invitations from employers or relatives of permanent residents of the district were allowed entry, and the local authorities took direct control of the federal highway leading into the district by setting up a border post and introducing checks on the rail line and at the airport. (It was able to do the latter relatively easily because district government officials own the only airline that services Yamalo-Nenets.)

All these steps were taken in the name of preventing terrorism and blocking the flow of illegal drugs, but local officials felt that they were not sufficient. As a result, these officials sought and obtained from the federal interior ministry their own special military units to enforce these rules and set up a special state institution to keep track of migrant workers who might be in violation of local rules and thus could be “deported” to other parts of the Russian Federation or abroad.

When word of these arrangements surfaced in the Moscow media, Gennady Kuprava, the head of the interior ministry department for the Yamalo-Nenets city of Novy Urengoy, was dismissive: “If people want to consider this city closed,” he said, “let them do so. This is an open city. But! It is open [only] for citizens who observe the rules established by the director of the FSB [Federal Security Service]” ( Yet, his words were anything but reassuring to human rights advocates, to political analysts concerned about the future of the Russian Federation, and to the leaders of other regions and republics of the Russian Federation whose citizens may want to work in Yamalo-Nenets.

Human rights groups naturally have pointed out that the proposed law and existing arrangements violate not only the Russian Constitution but a variety of international agreements that Moscow has committed the country to. Unless Moscow reverses course and blocks the Yamalo-Nenets actions, they say, the center will find itself criticized both at home and abroad, especially since what Salekhard is doing is certain to spread to the capitals of other federal subjects.

Political analysts have been if anything more upset. Dmitry Zhuravlev, the director of the Moscow Institute of Regional Problems, said he was especially concerned that what Yamalo-Nenets is doing will be copied by others, thus breaking the Russian Federation up into a variety of places with different laws and with effectively separate citizenships. He added that he expects that the most serious protests against this legislation will take the form of lawsuits against Yamalo-Nenets in Russia’s Constitutional Court.

But another Russian expert, Aleksei Makarkin of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies, suggested that there was a far greater danger looming ahead, one that in fact has precedents in the 1990s. Other federal subjects may seek to follow Yamalo-Nenets and prevent outsiders from entering their territories. If that happens—and it could, he suggested—then, “different rules of the game and different interpretations of one and the same law, as well as different interpretations of excerpts of the Constitution” will leave Russia a fragmented country, one that could be at risk of falling apart (