(AP) - Russia is cracking down on millions of illegal workers under tough migration rules that came into effect yesterday, as the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment rises.
But with Russia's population plummeting, there is concern about serious shortages of low-wage laborers.
"They don't like the color of our skin here," said a 26-year-old Azerbaijani produce seller at a Moscow food market who gave his name as Alek. He predicted that he and many of his fellow migrants would have to leave Russia.
Under the new rules, which set a quota of 6 million foreign workers for 2007, authorities are carrying out strict checks of the estimated 10 million to 12 million foreigners who are working in Russia, most of them illegally, reports Trend.
The legislation eases procedures for citizens of most former Soviet republics who enter Russia to obtain work permits, but it also increases fines for businesses that employ illegal migrants.
Further limiting foreigners' right to work in Russia, a government decree that took effect Jan. 1 restricted the number of non-Russians in the retail trade.
The issue of immigration has become a lightning rod for President Vladimir Putin's government as popular resentment of migrants increases, particularly against darker-skinned workers from former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Racist attacks and hate crimes are on the rise, and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration -- a far-right grass-roots political organization -- has exploded in popularity in recent months.
Critics warn that the crackdown will only encourage xenophobic sentiment, fuel inflation and accelerate Russia's population decline.
The population is dropping by about 700,000 a year and has fallen below 143 million, a demographic crisis blamed on the economic turmoil after the Soviet collapse. The decline would be even more catastrophic were it not for immigration.
Migrants from former Soviet republics, mostly from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova or poor nations in Central Asia, including Tajikistan, are the main source of cheap labor in Russia. They perform menial jobs for low pay that Russians refuse to do, forming the backbone of the work force in the construction industry and food and clothing markets.
John Litwack, chief economist at the World Bank's office in Russia, said that Russia needed to attract 1 million new migrants a year, but the new rules likely could make it more difficult for foreigners to work here.
"Russia relies tremendously on immigrant labor because it is facing a very difficult demographic crisis, which in the medium term will become more serious," he said. "It is in Russia's interests to maintain favorable conditions for migrants, particularly from the former Soviet Union."
Under the new regulations, businesses that employ people without proper documents face fines of up to $30,100 and a three-month trading suspension.