Russian markets suffer as new rules hit immigrants

Khabarovsk, Russia, Jan 19 | Updated: Jan 20 2007, 05:45am hrs
Stray dogs hunt for food among empty market stalls, a wheelbarrow stands idle.

Not much was happening this week in the market at Khabarovsk, in Russias Far East, a few days after new immigration rules came into effect. Its Chinese stall-holders had fled back across the border. There is nobody here now, said one of the last Chinese traders, who called herself Marina. If they want us to work we will stay. If they dont want us to work we will leave. The new rules, which came into effect on Monday, were partly designed to redress the balance of Russians to immigrants working in markets, whose stall-holders are mostly from the Caucasus, Central Asia and China.

Under the new law, foreigners will be barred from trading in markets after 2008.

Marina packed torches, deflated rubber dinghies and plastic calculators into cardboard boxes ready for the journey back to China, just a few dozen kilometres away. Others had abandoned their stock, now being sold by Russians at a much higher price than the Chinese had charged.

I cant buy this for 1,000 roubles ($40), said Lida, a former engineer, gesturing at a stall behind her run by a Russian.

I have a pension of 3,000 roubles a month and pay 2,000 for housing. How can I live She pulled her shawl over her shoulders and trudged on.

The Chinese, like other immigrants, filled a gap because they were willing to work in markets and could supply products from China more cheaply than Russian equivalents.

Many Russians rely on markets for cheap supplies because shop prices, especially in big cities, have reached Western levels while an average Russian earns only $5,000 a year.

In Khabarovsk, a town with a population of about 300,000 near the border with China, the Russian market manager turned and pondered his footprints in the snow before replying.

Grandmothers and women come to me and ask: What have you done he said wearily. I explain that we didnt do anything and that they should ask the government. The new laws are also designed to streamline the immigration process and give immigrants an incentive to work legally. More than 90% of an estimated 12 million migrants in Russia work illegally because bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to obtain the right documents.

In Moscow this week, immigration officials swept through the Kashirsky Dvor market, past stacks of bricks, lino samples and rolled-up carpets, interrupting traders work to check their documents. They detained three people in the raid a Moldovan woman with a fake work permit and two men.

Immigrants complain there is not enough information about the new immigration procedures and the process takes too long.

Mikhail Matryoshin, a senior regional immigration official, said he appreciated the difficulties but discouraged workers and employers from paying dubious agents to obtain the documents.

Never look for an easy way out, he said.

Officials insist Russians will be happy to replace migrants in markets. There are Russians to be hired, the deputy head of the Federal Migration Service, Vyacheslav Postavnin, told Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily. Market owners will make sure their business continues. Market businessmen say this will be difficult.

A cafe manager, a Russian citizen of Armenian origin, said he had hired Russians but they left after two weeks. He said they wanted to work short hours for high pay and few had applied for the job. The best workers are from Central Asia, he said. Our cooks are, naturally, from Armenia.