Dazed & Depardieu'd in Russia

On January 3, 2013, Vladimir Putin signed [ru] into law nine pieces of new legislation (mostly dealing with immigration) and one executive order to naturalize [ru] French actor Gérard Depardieu. Not shockingly, most Russian bloggers and journalists responded to the latter event, given how utterly bizarre it is indeed. The Depardieu story has something for everyone: celebrity ego, cults of personality, and international intrigue. In the domestic political context, Russia's newest citizen is for some a badge of patriotic honor—for others, it's setback in the battle against anything and everything associated with Vladimir Putin (who personally handed Depardieu his new passport in Sochi just days later).

Smoke & mirrors

Gérard Depardieu and Vladimir Putin, Sochi, Russia, 6 January 2013, photo by The Presidential Press and Information Office, CC 3.0.

As most of the RuNet quibbled and grumbled about the star of Green Card, a few bloggers and journalists took a closer look at one of those nine other documents Putin signed on January 3—particularly new amendments to the legal status of foreign nationals residing in Russia.

That new law [ru] institutes the following:

[…] Федеральным законом предоставляется право работодателям и заказчикам работ (услуг) привлекать и использовать для осуществления трудовой деятельности иностранных работников, временно проживающих в Российской Федерации, без наличия разрешения на привлечение и использование иностранных работников. Одновременно указанной категории иностранных граждан предоставляется право осуществлять трудовую деятельность без разрешения на работу.

[…] the Federal Law provides for the right of employers and labor purchasers to attract and hire foreign employees temporarily residing in the Russian Federation—without [special] permission to attract and employ foreign workers. Equally, this category of foreign national is granted the right to work without a work permit.

Many who noticed this law rashly concluded that Putin had just opened the floodgates for all migrant workers. Journalist [ru] Natalia Oss, for instance, took to her Facebook page to accuse [ru] the Kremlin of plotting to fill Russia with loyal “gastarbaiters” (migrant workers), in order to swing the future electorate in its favor. Her tone is implicitly racist:

Да честные добрые гастарбайтеры честно проголосуют за кого угодно доброго без всяких подтасовок. Я бы на их месте голосовала за благодетеля – и работу дал, и паспорт, и 282-ую, и маму с папой позволил перевезти сюда и в поликлинику записать. Не понимаю, почему это не волнует демократическую общественность?

Yes, the honest, good gastarbaiters will honestly vote for any ole body, all without any smoke and mirrors. If I were in their place, I'd vote for my benefactor, too—the one who gave me work, a passport, Criminal Code 282 [a statute against hate speech], and let me bring my mom and dad here, and check them into a clinic. I don't understand: why doesn't this worry a democratic society?

Political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky reposted [ru] Oss’ Facebook update, endorsing the notion that the Depardieu naturalization had been a cover-story for this more serious legal reform.

Lazy conspiracy theories

Oss and Pavlovsky, however, seem to be operating under a serious misreading of the new legislation. For one thing, the law has no impact on who is allowed to enter Russian territory in search of work—it is entirely directed at reducing standards (and paperwork) required of employers. Furthermore, the text uses a phrase that sounds colloquial but is in fact strictly licensed: “foreign workers temporarily residing in Russia.” As it turns out, temporary residence is a special legal status [ru] for foreign workers—one the federal government restricts to rather tight quotas.

On her Facebook page, Oss encountered some pushback from fellow journalist Vasily Gatov, who explained that Russia desperately needs more immigrants to sustain its pension system. After a thoroughly useless tangent about the fall of ancient Rome, Oss declared that “citizenship for migrants is literally violence against [Russian] locals.”

At this point in the conversation, Oss was confronted by Dmitri Bialik, another journalist with a history in political consulting. (He's also an infamous online troll known on LiveJournal as “re3us.”) First, Bialik explained how Oss (as well as Gatov and Pavlovsky, for that matter) had misread the law. When this failed to produce any retractions or apologies, Bialik did what he does best: he trolled. First, on Oss’ Facebook page, he wrote [ru] this:

К гастарбайтерам этот закон вообще никакого отношения не имеет. Журналисты, как обычно, качают деревья, чтобы устроить ветер.

This law doesn't have any relationship at all to gastarbaiters. Journalists, like usual, are just shaking the trees and calling it wind.

Minutes later, Bialik engaged Oss on Pavlovsky's Facebook page, where he taunted her twice more, first insulting her lack [ru] of “imaginative thinking” and then her poor spelling [ru].

In a more substantive response to arguments like Bialik's (which bloggers like Kovane [eng], Dmitri Khabliuk [ru], and LJ user arkhip [ru] have made elsewhere), Russian nationalist Konstantin Krylov also investigated [ru] the legal regime surrounding “foreign workers temporarily residing in Russia.” Krylov is convinced that the quota system guarding temporary residence status is riddled with loopholes. Writing in his LJ, he linked to an online service agency that offers assistance [ru] to foreigners seeking to migrate to Russia, and noted that there is a long list of exceptions [ru] to the quota system that could make obtaining such permission easy in principle.

Oss had also decried the apparent ease with which foreigners can legally enter and take up residence in Russia. In her exchange with Gatov, she mentioned a draft law to reform federal citizenship statutes (zakonoproekt 191469-6 [ru]), which she claims would allow anyone born in the former USSR to become a Russian citizen. In fact, the law only clarifies a citizenship right already codified in a 1991 law, which guarantees Russian citizenship to former Soviet citizens born within the territory of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (not the entire Soviet Union). Without directly addressing Oss’ position (or her mistake), blogger Andrei Sporov published a brief defense [ru] of legislation 191469-6 in his LiveJournal on January 4—the same day as all the hullabaloo about French and asiatic immigrants.

Dazed and confused

Gérard Depardieu certainly stole the show in Russia this week. Indeed, he seems to have made such a splash that even the netizens and journalists professing concentration on other “more important” subjects demonstrate all the symptoms of distraction and fatigue. If Oss and her colleagues are any measure, one wonders what else Russia's chattering class missed or misread in the last four days!

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