Shades of Communism in New Russian Registration Law

On the evening of March 18, 2013 group of around 12 people [ru] unveiled a long black-and-white poster in the Red Square, reading “Go f*ck yourself with your registration”. They set off flares and shouted slogans, among which were “Down with the Chekist government!” and “Putin will be executed!” The protest [ru] lasted for a few minutes before it was harshly broken up by Moscow police, who arrested the demonstrators in their usual brutal manner [ru], dragging some away by their hair.

Protesters holding a banner in the Red Square. Banner reads "Go f*ck yourself with your registration." YouTube screenshot. March 25, 2013

Protesters holding a banner in the Red Square. Banner reads “Go f*ck yourself with your registration.” YouTube screenshot. March 25, 2013

The action was in response to legislation currently under consideration [ru] in the Russian parliament, which if adopted would create harsh penalties for any Russian citizen not registered at their current address.

“Inflatable Flats”

Currently, Russians are already required to register with the authorities within 90 days of changing address. The new bill would increase fines for failing to register from 2,000 rubles to 3,000 rubles  and up to 5,000 rubles in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Landlords or tenants who sub-let are also liable for fines of up to 7,000 rubles, while legal entities face fines of up to 800,000 rubles. Furthermore, intentionally misleading the authorities by registering a person who, in fact, doesn't reside at the property (so called “fake registration”) becomes a criminal offence carrying large fines and punishable up to 3 years in jail.

The new registration rules were first conceived in line with Putin's election promises to fight the notorious practice of registering dozens of foreign migrants in a single apartment. According to statistics cited [ru] by Duma deputies, in 2011 some 300,000 people were found to be registered at 6,400 addresses — hence the curious name of the proposed legislation, the “Inflatable Flats Law”. In Russia today there are about 10 -15 million migrant workers, many of them from poor Central Asian republics. The vibrant economies of Moscow and St. Petersburg make these cities especially popular destinations for these laborers, and their large numbers are seen as placing a serious strain on social services and provoking ethnic and cultural tensions.

The proposed legislation has been harshly criticized by Russia's online community, many of whom feel that it breaches the freedom of movement clause of the Russian Constitution. For many Russians it invokes memories of “propiska” – a Soviet-era registration permit used by Soviet authorities to control internal migration by effectively binding citizens to their place of residence. While propiska is still remembered as a painful example of limited civil liberties under communism, it was not universally disliked, as many perceived it as a way to limit economic migration.

The proposed legislation also has potential unintended consequences. According to a report in Niezavisimaya Gazeta [ru], about 7 million Russians currently reside in properties whose landlords, for various reasons, are refusing to provide them with necessary registration paperwork. Oleg Shein, an Astrakhan based politician from the “Just Russia” party, voiced a popular criticism by pointing out [ru] in a blog post that rather than foreigners, it’s ordinary Russians, homeowners and occupiers, who will be most affected by the increased penalties:

Реально закон касается вовсе не мифических “таджикских иммигрантов”, а примерно 25-30 миллионов русских, татар, калмыков, евреев, осетин и т.д., живущих не там, где написано в паспорте. В Астрахани я оцениваю число таких людей примерно в сто тысяч. […] Причины могут быть разные: аварийный дом, трудовая иммиграция из села в город, конфликт с родственниками и т.д.

In reality the law affect not “migrants from Tajikistan”, but approximately 25-30 million [ethnic] Russians, Tatars, Kalmyks, Jews, Ossetians, etc. who do not live at the address stamped in their passports. In Astrakhan I would estimate there are around 100,000 people in this situation. […] There may be various reasons for this: emergency housing, labor migration from villages to the city, a family conflict, etc.

Muscovites face inspections

Despite the fact that the legislation is not yet in effect, Moscow City Government has already begun to actively monitor registration of people living in housing association flats. It has introduced guidelines on its website which advise inhabitants that a district policeman with the representatives of the housing association will be visiting flats twice a month to verify registration. Communal flats have been plastered with notices asking neighbors to notify housing authorities if they suspect that large numbers of strangers may have moved into a flat in their building. Bloggers [ru] and the media [ru] report that these “raids” have already started in many districts of Moscow.

The revelations have provoked strong online reactions, as citizens are outraged about the violation of their privacy. The new rules are also seen as a bribe-seeking opportunity for corrupt law enforcement officers — people will be incentivised to pay them off rather than face fines or court procedures. An online petition [ru] against the legislation has been set up by the activist movement “No to Propiska” and already boasts 91,621 signatures (by law, upon collection of 100,000 signatures it has to be debated by the Duma). Bloggers and online communities are now issuing advice [ru] to the public about what to do should the police knock on their door and demand entry for inspection.

Putin against Putin

Many opponents of the tougher registration rules are convinced that the law is just another symptom of the ongoing crackdown on civil liberties during Putin’s third presidential term.

Popular liberal blogger Oleg Kozyrev made it clear [ru] he has no doubts about the motivation behind the bill.

Мое мнение – смысл этого закона конечно не в том, чтобы кормить участковых, а в том, чтобы повысить репрессивный характер контроля над гражданами, это шаг к тоталитарному характеру власти. Закон абсолютно в логике законов о митингах, об интернете и т.д.

In my opinion – the logic behind introducing this legislation is, of course, not to feed local police officers [through corruption], but to increase the repressive means of control over citizens, a step towards totalitarian government. This law follows the same logic as ones restricting public gatherings, censoring the Internet etc.

Blogger Sapojnik voiced [ru] similar sentiment:

Все-таки несчастная Россия – это какой-то дурной сон, поставленный на вечный “повтор”. Когда уж, наконец, клеймо “регистрации” начнут ставить всем прямо на лбу, чтоб не перетруждать ответственных работников ДэЗов?? Позор, конечно. Людей в собственной стране ходят и проверяют, как скот – есть клеймо или нет. Дожили! В 1991, когда казалось, что в страну пришла СВОБОДА – разве я думал, что опять доживу до такого маразма??

Poor Russia is like some kind of bad dream, put on eternal “replay”. When will they start putting a registration brand right on your forehead, so as not to trouble responsible government officials?? A total shame. People in their own country are being inspected like a cattle, checked if they are branded of not! This is what we've lived to see! In 1991, when it seemed that the FREEDOM came to the country, did it ever occur to me that I’d witness such madness again?

Oleg Kozlovsky reminded [ru] his readers that since the abolition of Soviet-era propiska in 1993, various restrictions and limits to freedom of movement were gradually lifted as legislators aimed to make life easier for the citizens, first allowing to remain without registration for 90 days, then allowing to register over the Internet. Now:

[…] больше государственного контроля, больше запретов, больше наказаний. […] Так Путин отменяет то немногое, что при нем было сделано хорошего.

[…] more government control, more restrictions and more punishments. […] Thus Putin reverses the little good that was done during his time.

It is hard not to sympathize with such pessimistic reactions. While the legislation does try to address the specific problem of large numbers of migrants registering in one flat, police inspections of people’s homes are rightly seen as unacceptable. By encouraging neighbors and district police officers to keep a close eye on residents and identify any “illegals”, the law fosters a culture of invigilation and mistrust. At the same time it fails to distinguish between foreigners and Russian citizens, and fails to address broader problems with large numbers of foreign migrants.

According to [ru] the Presidential Human Rights Council many foreign laborers are simply unable to legally obtain residency permits. President Putin is said [ru] to acknowledge that there are problems with the legislation in its current form, and recognizes that improvements have to be made before it is signed into law. Nevertheless, most politicians in the ruling “United Russia” party seem content [ru] with the bill in its current form, and so any hope for substantial change seems forlorn.

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