Open Borders, Closed Minds: Russia's Changing Migration Policies: Liberalization or Xenophobia?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Russia's choice to pursue restrictive immigration policies is counterintuitive, given the acute need for labor migrants. This analysis argues that in response to pervasive xenophobia, the state has embarked on a labor migration policy agenda that does not reflect the demographic reality of Russia's rapidly declining working age population. Institutional and societal manifestations of xenophobia work together to demand and justify restrictive immigration policies. The state provokes and reinforces these nationalist attitudes through the media and discriminatory policies and practices such as ethnic profiling and allowing extremist groups to operate with impunity. The literature on migration policy systematically neglects illiberal polities, making this discussion linking the policy input of xenophobia to restrictive policy outputs a unique contribution to the ongoing study of how states respond to immigration. (1)

Keywords: demographic crisis, immigration policy, labor migration, nationalism, Russia, xenophobia


New migration rules in Russia, enacted on January 15, 2007, are part of an ongoing effort to address the current demographic crisis. In a period of massive population decline, the state has made policy efforts to create balanced immigration by enticing Russian "compatriots" while limiting migrants from the former Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While CIS citizens are not required to have visas to travel to the Russian Federation, the 2007 legislation introduced a quota system limiting the number of work permits available to these migrants. (2) Quota levels have decreased every year since their institution, shrinking incrementally from 6 million in 2007 to 1.3 million in 2010. Furthermore, in the sector of retail trade (almost exclusively manned by immigrants), foreign workers were banned altogether as of April 2007.

Why would Russia, whose population is decreasing by 700,000 per year, institute restrictive immigration policies? (3) In fact, many believe immigration is the only source of population growth in Russia. (4) This article argues that in response to growing xenophobia in society, the state has embarked on a labor migration policy agenda that does not reflect the demographic realities present in Russia. Nationalism and xenophobia have a number of manifestations in both the state and society. The state continually reinforces nationalist attitudes through the media and discriminatory policies. These efforts resonate with the public, which passively supports xenophobia, and with nationalist actors who actively promote anti-migrant agendas. Pervasive institutional and societal manifestations of xenophobia work together to both demand and justify restrictive immigration policies.

By setting forth the Russian case as an example of a state that uses restrictive policies and nationalist discourse as key components of its immigration strategy, this article contributes to an understanding of how law is affected by the ideological constructs dominant in a state. Toward this goal, the article proceeds in two sections. First, a review of the literature creates a theoretical context for Russia as an immigrant receiving country. Second, an analysis of Russia's current policies and the xenophobia that demands them shows how nationalist sentiment trumps demographic realities in the process of policy formation.

Nationalism and Immigration

A look at current migration literature justifies the importance of the Russian case. Even though it is the second largest immigrant-receiving country after the United States, Russia does not fall neatly into the parameters of the existing literature. There is, therefore, an opportunity to advance the discourse by identifying gaps that the Russian case can fill. The literature relevant to immigration policy, especially that regulating labor migration, can be broadly categorized into inputs (factors that influence what types of policies will be chosen) and outputs (the policies themselves). …