• 2006-11-01

cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

Discussion about the Kremlin's drive to entice diaspora Russians to pack up their bags and move to the motherland has gained momentum in recent days, particularly after a recent congress of foreign Russians in St. Petersburg. Naturally, the ethnic Russian communities in Estonia and Latvia are astir in conversations about whether or not Moscow's offer is worth considering, let alone accepting. The Kremlin, which is facing one of the worst demographic slumps in the world, needs people. Russia's population is diminishing by about 700,000 per year, and soon there won't be enough workers to maintain a vast country that spans 11 time zones.

Pursuant to the repatriation program, Moscow is hoping to "lure home" some 300,000 Russians over the next few years, or 1 percent of the estimated 30 million strong diaspora. Settlers will be given a choice of 12 locations ranging from the Kaliningrad exclave to Siberia and the Far East, where the outflow of residents is particularly stark.

Money-wise, the program will have a budget of 17 billion rubles ($635 million), which breaks down to some $2,200 per re-settler. That's not much 's not even by Russian standards 's though regional governments are expected to foot other relocation costs. Considering the Kremlin's enormous reserves stockpiled over the past years thanks to oil revenues, the sum is actually a trifle, and unlikely to convince many to make the move. No doubt, the better the welfare of the origin-country, the less likely anyone will take the opportunity.

For Baltic Russians, the program is too little too late. Sergei Sergeyev, who heads an association of Russian organizations in Estonia, summed up the situation perfectly. "The Estonian standard of living is higher, and life itself more peaceful," he was quoted as saying earlier this year. "People here are used to amenities that cannot yet be found in Russia. If Russian youth in Estonia want to pursue a career outside Estonia, it's the West 's rather than Russia 's they'll head for."
To be sure, this is not what many nationalist Balts want to hear. Last week, members of Estonia's right-wing bloc, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, called on disgruntled Russians in Estonia to take up the Kremlin's offer. They all but said "good riddance." As expected, this sparked anger from minority Estonians and moderate forces such as the Center Party that have worked to consolidate a segregated society.

It was a foolish thing to say. Estonia, and Latvia as well, are also suffering a population crunch, and may soon have to entice foreign workers to keep the shops running and the roads repaired. At a time when the two countries need every worker, they would best hang on to what they have. Romanian and Bulgarian guest-workers will not make better, more law-abiding residents than Russian-speaking noncitizens. Demographics will determine the course of the 21st century, and Baltic politicians should not forget that.