As of January 1, 2015 migrant workers in Russia were required to pass a history and civics exam, in addition to a Russian language test mandated by a 2012 law, in order to obtain a work permit. This summer, however, the exam is getting tougher with an expanded vocabulary list and five new history questions, tinged with politics.
Russian newspaper Izvestia reports that in July foreigners seeking work permits will find new questions regarding Crimea and Stalin on the exam. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s report and translation, exam takers will need to “name the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea as the region that ‘was joined to’ Russia in 2014” and “name Josef Stalin as the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in the Great Patriotic War.”
The updated test joins increased passport restrictions unveiled last summer, which seem to target those of Russia’s neighbors that are less-interested in joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Previously, citizens from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) could enter Russia using their national identity cards. Now, an international passport is required, with an exception for those from states which are members of EEU, or soon to be, such as Kyrgyzstan. The new passport regulations hit workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the hardest, as neither state has plans to join the EEU at this time and both of which have significant numbers of migrant workers in Russia.
The history and civics exam was first mandated by a law signed in April 2014 to go into effect by January 1, 2015. Russian officials couched it in terms of protecting workers from exploitation by making them aware of their rights. Advocacy groups, however, disagreed. Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Citizen’s Assistance, a Moscow-based human rights organization focused on migrants and refugees in Russia, was quoted at the time as saying the requirements were “pointless both in legal and practical” terms.
Estimates for the number of migrant workers in Russia from Central Asia range widely. In February The Moscow Times said that the latest report from the Federal Migration Service (FMS), the Russian executive body responsible for enforcing state immigration policies, recorded 100,000 Tajiks and 2.2 million Uzbek nationals in Russia as of January. Other estimates are less conservative, though most sources agree that the number has declined as rules and regulations increased and the ruble stumbled last year.
Remittances are more quantifiable than the number of workers, which fluctuate greatly depending on the season, and demonstrates the sheer importance of migrant workers in Russia to the economies of Central Asia. For example, in 2012 over 40 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP came from remittances, of which the World Bank estimates $2.2 million came from Tajiks working in Russia. In the same time frame, remittances composed 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, totaling $1.6 million from its citizens in Russia.
In addition to the money sent home, Central Asian states have benefited greatly from the availability of work in Russia for their citizens — many of whom cannot find work in their home countries. By essentially exporting their unemployed to find work in Russia, Central Asia has not had to truly deal with its high unemployment rates. Tajikistan, which according to World Bank data has an unemployment rate around 10 percent, simply does not have jobs for its citizens working as migrants in Russia.
A report from Eurasianet’s David Trilling in February quoted a Tajik fruit-and-nut seller in Moscow as saying that “if people all go home, they’ll be stealing from each other. They’ll have to come back. If they don’t, there will be another civil war.” Though dramatic, his comments indicate how important migrant work is, both economically and socially, in Central Asia.
Given the tougher history and civics test, the expanded language exam, increased fees, and new passport regulations, Russia’s attempts to enforce rules on what has, to date, been a fairly fluid migration process within the former Soviet Union is going to be a difficult process, especially for migrants from Central Asia.