Russia has a serious illegal immigration problem. Officials estimate there are 10-12 million foreign workers in Russia, of whom seven million or more are thought to have no formal residence or employment permit.
Few doubt the need to establish more efficient border and migration controls, however, the tone of some official pronouncements leads many commentators to ask, instead, whether the authorities are merely pandering to widespread popular racism.
countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
In recent years, various options for dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants have been considered. These included a one-off amnesty, something ultimately rejected as being too politically and socially "provocative". After race riots in the northern town of Kondopoga last summer, the authorities chose to adopt much tougher tactics. President Putin, who has repeatedly warned of the scourge of racism and racist
violence, called for action to "protect the interests of the native population".
A quota on permits
This is not all. Foreigners are also being gradually banned from working as traders in outdoor markets. Along with building sites and farms, this has been one of the most important sources of employment for them. Furthermore, they will be banned completely from selling alcoholic drinks and pharmaceutical goods.
Many would-be migrant workers say Russia's labyrinthine bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to obtain formal permission to live and work in the country.
Millions of ordinary Russians have depended on outdoor markets for cheap food and consumer goods. Prices in the shops are often at Western levels - yet the average salary in Russia is less than US$5,000 per annum.
Russian television showed rows and rows of empty market stalls across the country in the days after the new regulations came into force. Nonetheless, officials insist there are Russians who will eventually replace migrant
Steven Eke is an analyst of the former Soviet Union, working for the Europe region of BBC World Service
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