Russia's Siberian State Within A State

Roughly 90% [ru] of Russian gas production (and 22% of worldwide gas output) originates in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, located in the northwestern corner of Siberia. In recent months, bloggers and Russian netizens have reacted to the latest in a series of changes to internal migration laws inside YaNAO. Places in the Okrug like Novy Urengoy and Salekhard, home to major gas fields now owned [ru] by Gazprom, were “closed cities” during the Soviet era — meaning that citizens required special permission even to pass through the area.

Those restrictions are back. In fact, strict migration limits were in place between 2006 and 2012, but local branches of the federal police did not enforce them. Last year, the FSB briefly abrogated the statute [ru] that establishes the rules for “boundary regimes.” Simultaneously, however, local police created a 24-hour boarder control post outside Novy Urengoy, requiring anyone without a worker's permit or an invitation from a resident to apply for a special permit (which takes a month to process).

With local policies seemingly at odds, Vladimir Putin was asked to weigh in last month during his hours-long press conference [ru] in Moscow. Putin told a Vologda-based reporter that an unmanageable influx of migrant workers and illegal drugs has necessitated stricter border control measures. Russia's President then insisted that the local population also supports the return of limitations on migration to and through YaNAO.

Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, 21 July 2009, photo by Cliff Hellis, CC 2.0.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev visited the Okrug and reiterated Moscow's support for the lockdown, prompting an article [ru] in Ekaterinburg-based online newspaper That piece caught the attention of anti-Kremlin LiveJournal user svobodoff, who then blogged [ru] somewhat sensationalistically that “the FSB is closing off Yamal to all Russians!” Svobodoff argues that Putin's support for the initiative is illegal, explaining that the YaNAO special boundary regime violates the Russian Constitution's Article 27 [ru] (which guarantees citizens the freedom to move within the country).

According to svobodoff, the Kremlin's support for the migration restrictions is related to the prominence of the gas industry in YaNAO. He specifically cites [ru] a recent liquified gas co-production agreement between Alexey Miller's Gazprom and Leonid Michelson's Novatek — brokered by Putin:

Кремлядь считает этот газ своим, а не граждан РФ. Поэтому Путин, Миллер и Михельсон обо всём договорились и газ уже поделили, не спрашивая граждан. Путин обеспечит закрытие региона-кормушки от лишних любопытных глаз, а Миллер и Михельсон обеспечат наращивание добычи.

These Kremlin whores [kremliad] think this gas belongs to them, and not Russia's citizenry. That's why Putin, Miller, and Michelson agreed about all this and already divided up the gas, not asking any of the citizens. Putin closes off the regional-gravy-train from prying eyes, and Miller and Michelson furnish the increased production.

Ekho Moskvy reposted the article, attracting many reader comments that resonate svobodoff's skepticism about the border measures. Vladimir Shilak, for instance, declared [ru] that the Kremlin is preparing a nationwide “embargo,” in order to sever ties with the United States and European Union and institute a new “iron curtain.”

In early December, however, far more supportive reader comments appeared on a Komsomolskaia Pravda article [ru] about Novy Urengoy's border regime, made stricter after a late 2012 report from the local MVD police branch revealed that regional crime rates were up 64% on the year. KP readers, naturally a less liberal-leaning crowd, were often eager to endorse the authorities’ tactics, even voicing openly racist sentiments against Central Asian migrant workers.

One less-racist commenter, for example, wrote the following in poorly spelled Russian:

В Москве тоже надо так сделать. От приезжих только проблемы, и не только от кавказцев и азиатов, но и от русских из других регионов проблем не меньше. А пускать правелно толко по преглошению работодателя [sic].

We need to do the same thing in Moscow. Migrants only bring problems, and I don't just mean Caucasians and Asians — Russians from other regions are no less a problem. We should allow in people only by employers’ invitations.

In the spirit of Russian chauvinism, user Vasya responded to the above comment with a quick insult, writing:

Судя по грамотности вы сами из гастарбайтеров. А кто у нас громче всех кричит «Держи вора»?!

Judging by your grammar, I'd say you're a migrant worker yourself. It's always the guilty party who yells loudest “catch the thief!”

Commenting on svobodoff's post, LJ user Igor Eidelman wrote [ru] that he recently visited YaNAO. According to his experience, the only foreigners in the area are highly skilled “drillers,” “installers,” and “welders.” Because the gas industry can afford to pay higher-than-average wages for menial labor, the need for cheap migrant workers is lower in YaNAO, according to Eidelman, and businesses prefer to hire Russian citizens.

Whatever the legality of internal borders or the actual “narco-threat” from migrant workers, one thing is clear: RuNet outrage about a potentially unconstitutional crackdown on the freedom of movement shares the stage with an equally (or maybe even more) vociferous phobia [ru] of dark-skinned laborers from the South. Whether or not migrant workers are actually responsible for growing crime rates, it's hard to deny a populist tendency to blame outsiders. Perhaps it's this phenomenon — more than any gas deposits — that local authorities are most hoping to exploit [ru].

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