By April, the Russian government hopes to reduce the number of illegal workers in the country by nearly 50 percent. The majority of such workers toil at low-wage market jobs shunned by ordinary Russians. Others are involved in the sale of counterfeit alcohol and medicine. VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow takes a look at the government's new plans to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.
Migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus dominate markets across Russia. But flows of illegal workers have also been reported from Vietnam, China, Turkey and India. With Russian nationalism on the rise, resentment has grown against the migrants and their business gains. Feuds between rival immigrant criminal gangs have also become more common.
Just last month, in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, members of the National Bolsheviks Party staged an unauthorized protest inside Federal Migration Service headquarters, demanding tighter migration control regulations regarding Chinese nationals.
Russian migration officials say less than 10 percent of up to 12 million foreigners working in Russia are doing so legally. As of this year, the government is taking steps to crack down on migrant labor, in a bid to combat illegal immigration and return Russia's small shops and street markets to Russians.
Russian officials claim that the millions of immigrants working illegally in the country do not pay taxes and siphon money out of the national economy. But the World Bank's lead economist for Russia in Moscow, John Litwack, says that concern is groundless.
"If anything is a problem for Russia, it is that too much money is coming into the country, which is creating lots of pressure on the exchange rate on the ruble," he noted. "The fact that migrants are channeling some of this money home is, from a macro-economic point of view, is not detrimental to Russia at the current time. In fact, I think it is useful from very many points of view, not the least of which is that it helps to promote stability in a number of neighboring countries."
Conservative estimates put the total amount of money sent to neighboring countries like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Central Asia at around $4 billion to $5 billion per year. Litwack said that money goes a long way toward fostering stability in those countries, where employment opportunities are slim and the lure of drugs and crime hard to avoid.
Russian officials have drawn up ethnic quotas, declaring that the population of any one region of the country should be made up of no more than 17 percent to 20 percent of foreign nationals. The officials say anything beyond that risks agitating the native population.
The director of Russia's Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, says the government has been completely transparent about the changes, including notifying all sellers what they need to do to comply.
Mr. Romodanovsky says the changes should actually liberalize the system, opening it up to greater competition. Not everyone agrees.
Andrei Vazhenyen is a senior migration control officer in the Russian Far East, bordering China. He says even though the new policy allows for a 40 percent make-up of foreign vendors, most of the Chinese sellers have already fled back to China, leaving the market empty.
Andrei wonders where are all the Russian workers to take their places.
Local shoppers are also skeptical of the plan. Pensioner Lyudmila Ryabinkina says she prefers foreign sellers to Russians, because she says they offer lower prices.
Economist Litwack says the pensioner has a point. As he sees it, the days of bargain prices could well be over.
"We are worried that the effect is going to be negative," he said. "That, in fact, it will be reflected in the prices in that when these markets are back and re-established and in full swing again, the prices are probably going to be higher, because costs are going to be higher. You know attracting Russians to work there [at the markets] costs more money than to have migrants work there."
But the Russian government says the flood of immigrant workers needs to be stemmed. Beyond targeting workers, the government is also exacting a price on employers who hire illegal immigrants, threatening them with fines of up to $30,000 per worker.
A recent survey carried out by the independent Public Opinion Fund in Moscow found a growing tendency among Russians toward ethnic intolerance. According to the survey, nearly 70 percent of Russians believe it is necessary to restrict the access of certain ethnic groups to parts of Russia. Just under one-quarter of the population reportedly opposes such a move.