Due to the unprecedented situation in Ukraine and in the bilateral relationship, it appears timely for Moscow to demonstrate the wisdom and paternalism it has invariably displayed towards the region throughout history. No doubt, opening Russia's doors and extending citizenship to Ukrainians seeking safety and peace seems both humane and far-sighted.
Over the two decades of the post-Soviet period, Ukraine has been the key migration partner for Russia, with almost two million individuals having emigrated to Russia since 1992, according to Russia's Federal Statistics Agency. In 2012, more than 50,000 more arrived, which makes Ukraine Russia's second largest supplier of immigrants after Uzbekistan (88,000). The Federal Migration Service indicates that another 1.6 million Ukrainians are currently residing in Russia as guest workers. These individuals are mainly from Eastern Ukraine, which has been historically close to Russia and where the Russian language is widely used. The workers are predominantly employed in the informal sector, and often are of illegal status. Using standard practices long in existence, every three months Ukrainians cross the Russian border, thereby gaining the right to stay in Russia three months more with no further permission needed.
The start of the New Year brought Ukrainian labor migrants quite the shock, as legislation came into force that allowed the citizens from CIS countries which enjoy a visa-free regime to stay in Russia only a total of 90 days every six months. In other words, after a three-month stay in Russia, foreigners now must go back to their homeland for a three-month period, after which they may be allowed to reenter Russia. If a foreigner breaks the rule and exceeds his/her stay in Russia beyond 90 days, he/she is to be punished with a three-year ban on entering Russia. The law is aimed to put a stop to the illegitimate, unregistered employment of CIS migrants and force them obtain the so-called ‘patents’ for individual employment. Applicants immediately lined up in long queues – 35,000 Ukrainians in the first quarter of 2014, i.e. or ten times more year on year.
Ukrainian migrants told me they were quite happy about obtaining the ‘patents’, despite the queues, because they do not have to leave Russia every three months and may comfortably keep their jobs as long as twelve months. Therefore, migrants can become legitimately employed foreigners, although it is still unclear how the patents will protect their labor and social rights, since the law fails to specify the need for a labor contract between the patented migrant and the individual employer. In fact, the situation will become ever more urgent in early 2015 when migrants with expired patents will re-apply for this status, even as the new law requires "data on types of the individuals' labor activities" during the preceding year. As a result, the currently liberally issued patents may turn into an instrument for corruption.
The acute domestic crisis in Ukraine of late 2013 and early 2014 may heavily impact existing bilateral migration ties.
First, more refugees, primarily from Eastern Ukraine, are expected. The pro-Russian residents of Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk are known to be concerned about their security, and not without reason. Those who have been openly friendly to Russia at rallies and critical of the Kiev government disappear or are attackedevery day. People are truly scared by possible mortal danger, and if the political situation in Ukraine's east continues to escalate, thousands will have to flee from the country. Last March, the Federal Migration Service reported thousands of Ukrainians seeking refuge.
Secondly, potential residence seekers should increase, since those who have hesitated in the past will be forced to make a decision. Many Ukrainians are waiting for Russia to extend a simplified citizenship procedure that seems proper both politically and pragmatically. Russia has the opportunity to increase its population with brotherly Russian-speakers that actually make up a part of the Russian world and are both skilled and educated. These migrants could be easily integrated with minimum government assistance, a win-win for Russia's demography and economy. Even if the European Union provides Ukrainians with appropriate assistance, those from the eastern part of the country will anyway prefer Russia due to their command of Russian, the availability of relatives and religious commonality. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
Third, the Ukraine crisis has visibly aggravated the position of Ukrainians working in Russia. Most have families back home but they are choosing to stay away fearing a loss of their jobs, with many practically being trapped. If Russian migration law fails to provide them with special status, they may go underground and illegal. Many would be happy to follow the simplified citizenship procedure should Russia grant the opportunity.
The possible introduction of a visa regime by Ukraine will hardly have any effect on migration flows originating in Russia, as there are many times fewer Russians entering Ukraine than Ukrainians entering Russia. Even in this scenario, the Russian flow should dwindle to a trickle after the incorporation of Crimea. At the same time, a visa regime imposed by Russia on Ukrainians would hamper both short-term private visits for those visiting relatives and friends in Russia and for many potential immigrants. As the Ukraine situation is explosive, the migrant inflow may rapidly expand, with a visa becoming equal to a license for life. In addition, the expansion of consular and visa issuance services is a complicated, technical and time-consuming process.
Hence, due to the unprecedented situation in Ukraine and in the bilateral relationship, it appears timely for Moscow to demonstrate the wisdom and paternalism it has invariably displayed towards the region throughout history. No doubt, opening Russia's doors and extending citizenship to Ukrainians seeking safety and peace seems both humane and far-sighted.