Hannah Alberts: Putin’s Eurasian Union could inflame nationalism at home

By Hannah Alberts, Intern, Russia & Eurasia Programme

Since Vladimir Putin announced his intention to work toward integrating the economies of the former Soviet states in a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2011, Russia’s foreign policy goals have been increasingly in conflict with its domestic political realities. Inclusive rhetoric calling for the creation of economic and political associations between Russia and its neighbours stands in stark contrast to rising xenophobia within Russia, intensified by increased migration from potential EEU member states. Domestic policies that play to anti-migrant sentiments are irreconcilable with the openness to neighbouring countries required to achieve Russia’s strategic objective of forming a Eurasian bloc capable of rivalling the economic spaces to its east and west.

Poor economic conditions in origin countries and strong demand for labour in the Russian market drive a consistent flow of migrants into the country. Russia is the second-largest recipient country in the world, behind only the Unites States. Of the more than 11 million migrants residing in Russia, an estimated 7 million engage in work (including informal employment), making up 10% of the total labour force.

Though this has given Russia a ready supply of cheap labour to supplement a shrinking work force, as well as significant leverage over source countries dependent on remittances, it has also created a tinderbox of ethnic and political tension within Russia, which threatens to erode support for Eurasian integration. Migrants to Russia largely originate from the former Soviet republics, with which Russia maintains visa-free travel regimes. Though a significant proportion of foreign labour originates from Ukraine, large flows come from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Many ethnic Russians view migrants from these areas as ethnically, linguistically and culturally alien.

As the inflow of migration has increased, polling data from the Levada Center indicates that negative attitudes toward non-Slavic migrants are on the rise in Russia. Tensions have escalated to violent confrontation, provoking a number of anti-migrant riots across the country in 2013. Prominent figures from all sides of the political spectrum have exploited antagonism toward migrants for political gain, and law enforcement agencies have responded by conducting high-profile workplace raids and detaining thousands of foreign workers.

This mounting hostility poses a serious threat to Russia’s social stability. A recent study indicated that the popularity of the slogan ‘Russia for Russians’ has steadily risen since 2009, while the percentage of Russians reporting interethnic tension in their town or region has increased markedly over the past several years, from 25% in 2011 to 43% in 2013. Despite the crucial role migrants play in the economy, polling indicates that 73% of Russians favour the deportation of the country’s 3–5 million illegal immigrants over legalisation.

As the inflow of foreigners has increased, Russia has struggled to form a consistent policy response. Despite the economy’s dependence on foreign workers, the Federal Migration Service enforces strict regulations on the employment of foreign labour. Responding to anti-migrant pressures, the government limits the total number of work permits to a number far below that which the economy demands. Additionally, recent amendments to Russian migration law strictly limit the duration of stay for visa-free travellers. By forcing millions into the informal economy, these policies only further exacerbate negative perceptions of migrants.

Despite these rising tensions at home, Putin has continued to prioritise integrating the former-Soviet region. In agreements signed on 29 May 2014, the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan arranged to officially launch the Eurasian Economic Union on 1 Jan 2015. The path has also been laid for the extension of the union to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan in the near future. As the EEU expands, the number of migrants moving to Russia from CIS countries is expected to rise. The Eurasian Development Bank estimates that the accession of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would increase the number of migrants to Russia by 360,000 and 890,000 respectively.

While Russia champions the union’s expansion, its actions in Ukraine, alongside the domestic media campaign used to drum up support for this adventure, have further broadened the divergence between Moscow’s integrationist goals and illiberal popular sentiment. With the scales of public opinion tipping ever more in favour of nationalist attitudes, Putin may find that the balance of domestic constituencies he has sought to maintain is shifting beneath him. As the crisis persists, Putin is likely to become increasingly beholden to the isolationist mood that both supports and is reinforced by the position Russia has staked out on Ukraine.

Moscow’s capacity to straddle the gap between its internal challenges and external goals may be diminished as xenophobic tendencies further encroach upon Putin’s range of foreign policy options. In this case, Putin will either need to reign in anti-immigrant sentiment at home (which would be a challenging and protracted task) or scale back his goals with respect to integration abroad

Hannah Alberts, a graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, was an intern in the IISS Russia and Eurasia Programme in summer 2014. 

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