03:12 GMT +323 November 2017
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    Russia's future depends on streamlined immigration

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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yury Filippov).The lower house of Russia's parliament has adopted harsh amendments to the immigration legislation in a majority vote.

    The ruling is expected to be approved in the upper house and by the president, and to come into force by the end of this year.

    Foreigners and stateless persons who violate the rules of entry into Russia, the registration and immigration regime will be fined $200, and may be also ordered to leave the country.

    Western tourists who come to Russia for a couple of weeks to do some sightseeing and book their trips through reputable travel agencies have nothing to fear. The law is aimed primarily at curbing the uncontrolled illegal immigration from the former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

    Russia, as the main legal successor of the Soviet Union, has inherited from it the informal status of the "common home" for its former citizens. Ethnic purges in neighboring republics, some of them soft and other quite ruthless (as the anti-Armenian movement in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 1990), forced millions of non-titular people to leave their homes. Russia welcomed everyone who wanted to live, work and do business on its territory.

    It was a deliberate policy designed to turn Russia into the pivotal point for post-Soviet republics. Judging by the number of immigrants, which is estimated at 8-12 million, it has succeeded.

    However, that policy was not fully consistent, and its drawbacks have recently become apparent. The Kremlin willingly helped its neighbors cope with unemployment and raise living standards with the incomes their immigrants earned in Russia, without any reciprocal requirements. The liberal immigration legislation, and its even more liberal implementation, did not help Russia to become a political center or at least a country whose opinion is respected without fail, the way the Untied States is for its North American neighbors.

    The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which incorporated nearly all post-Soviet countries, is a feeble organization, a kind of "presidents' club" whose meetings are increasingly neglected by club members.

    Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are working hard to create a political alternative to the CIS. Ukraine is hindering economic integration on the basis of a customs union, and Azerbaijan and Georgia did their best to promote the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline via Georgia, although its economic expediency is questionable and Russia had proposed its territory for oil transit.

    Russian-Georgian relations seem to be breathing their last, with arguments ranging from NATO and the European Union to Georgia's conflicts with the former Soviet autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the low quality of Georgian wines exported to Russia. Taken together, this shows that truly neighborly relations and a border open to uncontrollable immigration are two different things.

    It has been believed until recently that Russia had political and economic reasons for keeping its southern and eastern borders open. A demographic crisis is reducing the Russian population by about 700,000 annually, and the Kremlin firmly believes that it needs labor immigrants to accelerate economic growth. President Vladimir Putin spoke about this in this year's state of the nation address to parliament.

    But the absence of immigration control is a drawback, not an advantage. Immigrants are flocking to big and rapidly developing cities, where they mostly trade (and also work in construction, transport and utilities), avoiding the provinces, which direly need them to overcome the consequences of an economic depression. Unregistered immigrants do not pay taxes, and the employers' desire to use cheap labor bypassing the law creates fertile ground for corruption.

    Russia does not intend to erect a new Iron Curtain, but it must streamline its immigration legislation to prevent chaos and uncontrollable developments. The time is ripe for this, as proved by the fact that Putin has addressed the issue. At a recent meeting with the government, he asked for detailed reports from the ministers of the economy, labor, the interior and agriculture. The problem is hugely complicated and needs a comprehensive solution using all available possibilities of the state.

    This may take several years, but the objective is worth the hard work. Fifteen years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia is still trying to draft the optimal principles of relations with its sovereign neighbors, from which the majority of immigrants come. It is still trying to form a comprehensive strategy for its economic development, with due regard for the resources it may receive from the former Soviet countries.

    Russia must advance firmly along this path to resolve its problems without keeping borders wide open.

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