Rubber Apartments

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A bill against fictitious residential registration has been approved by parliament and is likely to come into force before the end of 2013. MPs who voted for the law insisted it targeted “rubber apartments” where hundreds of people are fictitiously registered and, more broadly, illegal immigration. Lenta.Ru has read the text of the bill along with lawyers from the Public Verdict Foundation and concluded that the tightening of controls over registration and movement will directly impact Russian citizens as well.

Introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the bill, which has the neutral-sounding title “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” contains several subsections. Amendments have been made to the law on the freedom of movement of Russian citizens, the Administrative and Criminal Codes, and the law on the registration of foreign nationals by migration authorities. The preamble to the newly revised third article of the law on freedom of movement states residential registration is for informational purposes only, rather than a compulsory action. Whether someone is registered or not “cannot serve as grounds for restricting or a condition for exercising the rights and freedoms of citizens” as stipulated by the Constitution and other regulations.

This is consistent with the style in which new Russian laws are drafted: all attempts to prohibit something by law are based, allegedly, on a concern for protecting rights and freedoms. So it is in this case: a direct quotation from the Constitutional Court’s 1998 ruling that residential registration should not restrict the rights of citizens is followed by a list of the ways in which citizens will be restricted.

Thus, Russian citizens who have traveled outside their home regions must be registered within ninety days. If this does not happen, people renting housing and landlords may be held administratively or, in some cases, criminally liable. For living in an apartment without registering, tenants will be fined two to three thousand rubles [approx. 45 to 65 euros]; apartment owners, two to five thousand rubles [approx. 45 to 110 euros] and legal entities, 250 to 750 thousand rubles [approx. 5,500 to 16,500 euros]. Fictitious registration will be punishable by a fine of 100 to 250 thousand rubles, up to three years of hard labor or a similar term of imprisonment under Article 322 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.

— Andrei Kozenko, “Who’s no longer a tenant here: how the ‘rubber apartments’ law will impact Russians,” Lenta.Ru, December 18, 2013

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There is a stark political economy to the illegalization of migrant labour that goes unremarked in much of the election-season hand-wringing over the city’s growing population of nelegaly (“illegals” in derogatory officialese). For one thing, demand for labour that is low-paid, verbally contracted, un-unionised, and flexible far exceeds the city’s (deliberately minimalist) quota of work permits. Perhaps as many as four fifths of the city’s migrant workers are therefore employed without an official work permit, or individual patent permitting private employment. There is an open market for official work permits, as well as a (near indistinguishable) market for fakes. As I have explored in my research on the difficulty of creating documented selves in Russia, the degrees of intermediation for obtaining a work permit means that “cleans” and “fakes” are often distinguishable only at the point that they are checked by the police.

At the same time, the gulf between average wages and average rental costs in the city mean that many migrant workers live in conditions that violate administrative regulations: in multi-tenant “rubber apartments” (rezinovye kvartiry) without corresponding residential registration, in container-dormitories on building sites, or in the unventilated basement of a multi-storey apartment building entirely unrecorded within city housing stock. The choices here are stark: for those on a typical migrant wage in the catering sector of 15-17,000 roubles (around £300-£330 per month) the only way to make ends meet in a context where the rental costs exceed average wages three or four-fold is to share an apartment illegally with 15 or 20 other tenants, paying money to a notional “landlord” (another migrant who takes a cut) and paying off the local policeman to ensure that the apartment is protected from raids. In a city where the 2010 census identified over 92% of the city’s registered population to be ethnically Russian (russkii), the economic constraints upon legal migrant labour have made for an easy popular conflation between being visibly non-Russian, being a “guest worker” (gastarbaiter), and being an illegal.

Xenophobia is not new in Moscow. But the combination of a laissez-faire wage policy (with a race to the bottom for undocumented labour), together with excessive restrictions on legally documented labour, and the widespread use of bribes to circumvent administrative regulations has allowed for the normalisation of a casual racism in which discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is justified through concerns for security and comfort—or protection against “illegals”. One commercial website offering temporary accommodation to non-Muscovites, for instance, cites its own policy of ethnic selection in the following terms:

[W]e don’t have racist prejudices, but today the situation has developed such that the largest demand for a place to stay in Moscow comes from Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians. In accordance with the existing demand for inexpensive hostel accommodation in Moscow, we attempt only to house people of Slavic appearance (litsa slavianskoi vneshnosti), for the comfortable living conditions of all residents, and in so doing avoid any conflictual situations.

 — Madeleine Reeves, “Mayoral politics and the migrant economy: talking elections and ‘illegals’ in Moscow,” cities@manchester, September 5, 2013

 

Photo courtesy of The Moscow News

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