Ukraine’s migration policy
by Kyiv Post
Before the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, our relationships with Russia seemed to flourish. We used to buy natural gas from Russia at $50 per cubic meter, we agreed to postpone dubbing foreign movies into Ukrainian, we were working together on the development of the AN-140 airplane, and we considered joining the Common Economic Space, an ambitious integration project introduced by Russia for CIS countries.
To put yet more emphasis on the openness and friendship (though it looked like blunt support of then pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych), Russia even agreed to soften a rather strict policy that bound all foreigners to go through a tedious Soviet-type registration procedure in internal affairs offices within three days upon their arrival in any city. Ukrainians were given a full 90 days of leniency (as Russian and other foreigners are given in Ukraine) and were happily relieved from the predatory eyes of Moscow militiamen.
The paradox of that decision was revealed in a small detail: The law had obliged Russian citizens who wanted to relocate to another city to go through the same three-day registration procedure as required of foreigners. Needless to say, the Russian-Ukrainian intergovernmental agreement became a loud rattling barrel in the media, and before long, the same 90-day leniency was extended to also cover the citizens of Russia.
We all remember what happened soon after. Yanukovych lost after the revolution of “American-spiked oranges” and the “dubiously democratic” third round, Putin is facing a third-term quandary, and gas costs three times more. Democratic reforms in Russia ultimately found their own “sovereign” path.
One of the milestones on this road is the tightening of Russia’s migration policy. The old-new law of migration was implemented in Russia on Jan. 15 this year. The law presumes that after New Year’s Day, Ukrainians visiting Russia for more than three days will have to go through the same migration registration procedure as four years ago, before the leniency. Ukraine has two possible response strategies: reciprocate or ignore.
As Ukrainians and economists, we choose to ignore. There are several reasons for this, none of which deal with national pride.
Migratory registration in Ukraine is traditionally handled by local departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. If a visitor stays in a hotel, hotel management usually takes the trouble to get the registration process done properly. All others have to register in local offices themselves. The offices are located in almost every regional and city district throughout the country, and these offices are overloaded with other routines. The waiting time can reach several hours, especially in big cities.
According to the State Service for Tourism and Recreational Zones, about 5 million visitors from Russia visited Ukraine last year, 15 percent more than the year before. Most of them (about 80 percent) are private visitors coming here to see their friends and relatives, and obviously they don’t stay in hotels.
If Ukraine reciprocates the Russian registration law, hordes of tourists will overflow Ukrainian registration offices to fill out a couple of forms. Just imagine the additional number of these forms, the additional time and salaries of the officers who have to process the forms, and the total workload. Do Ukrainian citizens really want to pay for this out of their tax money just to show their teeth?
Money is actually not the biggest problem, since the costs of the registration procedure can be shifted downward to the visitors. Time is a much more sensitive issue. There are always “white rabbits” who are in a big hurry. They would be willing to bypass lines and pay extra for that. Whenever we introduce new lines, we explicitly provide incentives for public officers to take bribes.
Moreover, a missing stamped registration form in a visitor’s passport is cause for administrative responsibility. In plain English, this visitor has to pay a fine. Simple economic reasoning reveals that any amount that is less than the fine paid directly to the officer is preferable. These facts have been observed in Russia.
Hence, the second unwelcome outcome of our reciprocity is under-the-counter settlements and corruption growth in registration offices, custom posts and common patrol officers. If we declare the fight against corruption as a national priority, why would we fertilize the soil for this crime?
Another issue is that so far, not many officials seem to care much about registration. In fact, many Ukrainians feel proud that militiamen don’t stop people at every corner to check registration documents. From private conversations with many foreigners, we found that quite often foreign visitors easily reenter the country even after their previous stay was much longer than the officially allowed 90 days. Once the state decides to pursue consistency, officials will have to ensure the enforceability of the new rules. Since the rules for Russian visitors will be different from anyone else’s, confusion is unavoidable. Once the threat is not credible, is it really required?
Finally, tightening migration rules is devastating for business and social contacts. The 2005 cancellation of visas for EU and US citizens has brought Ukraine to the attention of visitors who never considered our country a possible destination point. Before the introduction of new visa requirements for long-staying foreigners this summer (see the Nov. 8 issue of the Kyiv Post), most Westerners tended to stay here for several months to years, providing Ukraine with helpful services, often volunteering in areas neglected by the government.
New registration policy requirements, the impossibility of applying for a stay permit from within the country and unclear rules may frighten off Western visitors. Introducing another set of rules for our Eastern neighbors would make the overall migration policy even more blurred and its enforcement even more tedious.
Should we really be that picky? Ukraine is not that big to afford losing an extra visitor. Every day they spend here brings in additional money, networking contacts and added value. If you don’t believe us, ask the owners of guest houses in Crimea or the Carpathian Mountains, or the owners of Ukrainian firms who hire Russian managers to run their businesses.
In the long run, the desire to reciprocate brings nothing but harm to the economy. It costs money, takes time, raises corruption and has negative network-wide effects. If foreign officials don’t understand the consequences of their decisions, we don’t have to follow their trail. It would be wise to keep our door open and learn to use openness to our advantage.