Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Boosting Russians’ Productivity Best Way to Reduce Immigration -- But Kremlin Doesn’t Want Either, Inozemtsev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – Russia will be able to limit immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus over the long term only by increasing the productivity of Russian workers and thus reducing the current demand for large numbers of low-skilled and low-paid workers, but that is something that may be contrary to the immediate interests of the current Russian elite.

            That argument was offered by Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow Center for the Study of Post-Industrial Society and a frequent commentator on social and economic issues in Russia, in a broad-ranging interview conducted by Leonid Smirnov and featured today on the portal of the Rosbalt news agency (www.rosbalt.ru/moscow/2013/02/19/1096111.html).

            Asked by Smirnov for his assessment of Moscow’s migration policy, Inozemtsev said that Russia “does not have a migration policy,” but that it is far from alone in that.  Most more or less successful countries don’t, and consequently, residents of less successful countries will always try to move to where they can make more money.

            The greater the gap in well-being, he continued, the more pressure there will be from those wanting to leave their homelands for other countries, and “restrictions in the form of repression will not help.”  Instead, countries who do not want to be overwhelmed by immigrants need to change their own economic behavior.

            Their workers need to become more productive, Inozemtsev said, because then they will need fewer immigrants for relatively low-skilled and low-paid work, but Russian elites benefit from the current situation – they make more profits at least in the short term – and thus have little motivation to improve the capacities of their own workers.

             Indeed, the attitudes of the powers that be seem to be that if any Russians are dissatisfied, they should leave and allow immigrants to come in and contribute to the wealth of the very top.  And the elite promotes that course even though it sets Russia “on course to the primitivization of society.”

            Moreover, whatever Putin and his colleagues say, the economist said, the Kremlin sees the influx of immigrants as having a geopolitical plus.  “The more people from poor republics of Central Asia are in Russia, the more the population of Central Asia will be interested in integration with Russia and the easier it will be to convince” their governments to go along.

            Russians should be convinced from this, Inozemtsev suggested, that “Putin is not a Russian nationalist, God forbid.  Putin is an imperial politician who sincerely wants to lead Russia via a system of unions and alliances” to a new position of prominence in the world, one even greater than the Soviet Union represented.

            When Russians do complain about immigration – and they increasingly they do, Inozemtsev pointed out – they are told by the regime that immigrants help Russia cope with its low birthrates.  Such arguments could be taken seriously if productivity were high, but Russians have a rate that is five to eight times lower than that of the Europeans

            Consequently, the commentator argued, Russia’s “most immediate task is to raise the effectiveness of our entire economy,” something that is very difficult when there is an excess of labor, if productivity were higher, and when entrepreneurs have “a very low motivation” to introduce labor-saving and productivity-increasing technologies.

            With the introduction of such technologies, Russia could easily reduce the numbers of workers required through a rise in productivity, Inozemtsev said, and the country’s migration problem would be solved “for a minimum of 15 years ahead.”  And he dismissed the notion that the country’s low density of population in areas like Siberia is a problem.

            Siberia has always had few people per square kilometer, but Alaska has even fewer. Because of technology there, Alaskans enjoy an income six times greater than Russians do.  So much for the argument that Russia needs to import labor in order to boost the standard of living of its people, Inozemtsev continued.

            His interviewer raised another issue: the flight of young people from the villages.  They are leaving not just to go to Moscow, Inozemtsev said, but rather to Europe and America.  At present, they “look at Moscow as a transfer point on the way to the West,” all the more so because the young people who occupy jobs in the Russian capital aren’t going to give them up to such newcomers.

            Introducing a visa regime for Central Asians and people from the South Caucasus would not be something “terrible,” the economist said. All countries with “a normal economic policy” have visa regimes for countries with a lower level of development and eliminate it for those with a higher level.  But Russia does just the reverse, thereby adding to its own suffering.

            Inozemtsev said that he “expects the further worsening of human capital and possible social conflicts” because of that in Russia.  And he said that the slowdown in Russia since 2010 has less to do with the world economic crisis than with Russia’s own domestic problems, including its reliance on raw material exports and unwillingness to invest in human capital.

            Russia’s tasks “are not geopolitics, not a struggle with America and not a restoration of the empire.” Those are distractions, the commentator observed. “Our task is to achieve economic competitiveness” and that can only happen by increasing productivity of Russian workers and limiting the influx of low-wage and low-skill foreigners.

            Inozemtsev said that he “has no ethnic, rational or religious motivations” for saying that.  Rather, “if we want to establish a multi-national and poly-religious empire a la the USSR,” we should recognize “how all this will end,” just as it did in the past.  But “if the people wants this, then that is the people’s choice.”

            Putin reflects this “opinion of the majority” and would win election easily because he “is the representative of the majority,” a majority which, unfortunately in Inozemtsev’s opinion,  in Russia supports a dominating role for ideology over economics.” And he gives a concrete example of the expression of this problematic view.

            He was once on a television program during which the possibility of a Eurasian Union was discussed.  The audience was asked whether they backed the idea of “the reestablishment of a powerful European Union with all our former republics.”  Ninety-nine percent said they were for that.

            But when the same audience was asked whether they wanted citizens of Tajikistan to be able to come to Russia without a visa and have the same rights they do, 99 percent answered: “No!”  That is a special feature of Russian consciousness today, Inozemtsev concluded, “No one wants to understand that if one says A, then B follows.”

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