In its Dialogue with Kiev, Moscow Could Get Personal

August 23, 2013

Russia has levied sanctions against Ukraine, backing up hundreds of freight trucks at the border, all in protest of Ukraine’s decision to enter the European Union instead of the Moscow-centric Customs Union. The move may cost Ukraine $2.5 billion this year alone. Now, there are signs that Russia could turn its already infamous anti-immigration policies against anyone with a Ukrainian accent in order to put more pressure on Kiev to avoid joining the EU. – Ed.

For Kiev, a mass deportation of Ukrainian migrant workers from Russia could become a strong argument against European integration. Up until now Russia has not resorted to such means to convince the opponent. Meanwhile, according to immigration service data, up to 3 million Ukrainians travel to Russia several times a year. Many stay for two-three months and work here illegally. They are the ones that the punishing sword of Russian immigration authorities and law enforcement agencies could be drawn against.

On Sunday during their phone conversation, the prime ministers of Russia and Ukraine, Dmitry Medvedev and Nikolai Azarov, agreed to arrange a meeting of the heads of the two countries’ customs inspections. The urgency of consultations can be explained by the fact that effective August 14, Ukrainians were subject to a sudden tightening of customs controls for their goods, imported into the territory of the Russian Federation.

What is happening they called “customs terror.” Federation of Employers of Ukraine estimated potential losses of exporters at $2.5 billion by the end of the year. Kiev believes that the decision was made in Moscow at the highest level, and the Russian government deflects criticism to the Federal Customs Service (FCS) that, according to the government, started to subject all Ukrainian exports to additional scrutiny at their own initiative.

Yesterday afternoon the press service of the FCS confirmed that a meeting of the main customs of the two countries is planned, however, they couldn’t tell exactly when. It could be Monday afternoon, as well as Tuesday or Wednesday, which is consistent with the statement of representatives of the Russian government who said that the Russian-Ukrainian consultations may take place in the coming days. In short, Moscow is clearly not pushing it. And there’s more than broad hints that if the lesson is not learned, then more stringent sanctions will follow. It’s not by chance that Sergei Glazyev, a presidential advisor, made a statement the other day. He said that the inspection of goods on the Russian-Ukrainian border is still an one-off event. But in case Ukraine signs an association agreement with the EU, customs controls may be toughened. “We should not dramatize it. The Russian Customs Service has taken preventive measures related to the preparation of the customs administration regime change, that would be possible if Ukraine signs an association agreement with the EU,” he said.

Thus, the representative of the Kremlin openly talked about the real reason behind what is happening on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Western integration is the dominant political thrust in Kiev, regardless of who wins at the presidential and parliamentary elections.

This doesn’t suit Moscow, that still nourishes the idea of drawing Ukraine into the orbit of the Customs Union (CU). “Without Ukraine no integration block is possible ,” said Ruslan Grinberg, the Director of the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Science. As recently as last April the scientist sincerely believed that “purely economically, Ukraine has no chance to insert itself in anything other than the Customs Union.” However, he recognized that Kiev’s political support should not be counted on. Few believed in a possibility of rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU, but the project suddenly took off, and could be implemented already this fall.

It is almost impossible to prevent an alliance of Kiev and Brussels, which does not negate the exemplary punishment of the would-be CU partner. It is unlikely that it will be limited to the stringent measures at the border against Ukrainian exporters. Moscow has other levers at its disposal. It is believed that Kiev’s soft spot is labor migrants. According to the FMS, last year more than 10 million Ukrainian citizens entries into Russia were registered.

These entries represent over 3 million people. In other words, most of them would come to Russia on multiple occasions. Many of the those come to work, having the right to stay in Russia for up to three months. This is sufficient, for example, to complete work to “turn-key” one or two apartments. Experts estimate that one in five Russians families hires illegal immigrants to do house repair or remodeling. According to the National Bank of Ukraine, in 2012 migrant workers sent home $6.5 billion, primarily from Russia, where Ukrainians earned up to $2.3 billion.

If Moscow, trying to discipline Kiev decides, as they say, to get personal, that is to influence the Ukrainian authorities through the Ukrainian electorate, all that it will have to do is to shift the focus of a major campaign launched in the country against illegal immigrants. While in July, according to the FMS, there were less than 1.6 thousand Ukrainians residing illegally in the Russian Federation, this number could go up dramatically in no time.

Alexei Makarkin , the Vice-President of the Center for Political Technologies, does not rule out such a scenario. Although he recognizes that it would be extremely difficult for immigration officers to catch Ukrainian guest workers. In appearance it’s virtually impossible to tell a Ukrainian from a Russian. Unlike Tajiks or Uzbeks, which could be spotted in the crowd from a mile away.

However, technically, it’s feasible, provided there is enough political will. All they have to do is change their methods. Instead of roundups at markets and raids on underground factories where hundreds of illegal immigrants are employed, they can instruct beat cops to check the residential sector, concentrating on the new residential areas. They would go door to door, checking documents, detecting foreign nationals, including citizens of Ukraine, dressed in construction overalls, who can be detained, searched and deported, and the undeclared currency could be confiscated. That could do the trick.

“Certainly there are some economics in the next round of the conflict between Moscow and Kiev. However, politics prevail”, says Igor Nikolaev, the Director of the Institute of Strategic Analysis. In his opinion, in Russia there is that idée fixe: if not recreate the Soviet Union, than to do something like that. The role of the consolidator of lands in the post-Soviet space looks attractive, says the expert philosophically.