How Russia Treats “Compatriots”: The Case of Tatyana Kotlyar

A residence permit on Lermontov Street: why a human rights activist from Obninsk violates the laws of the Russian Federation
Julia Vishnevetskaya
October 3, 2015
Deutsche Welle

Human rights activist Tatyana Kotlyar, who has registered over a thousand immigrants at her home, is on trial in Obninsk. DW got to the bottom of the case.

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Human rights activist Tatyana Kotlyar

The latest hearing in the case of human rights activist Tatyana Kotlyar, on Friday, October 2, at the Obninsk Magistrate Court, began with a surprise. It transpired that the judge hearing the case had resigned a mere two days earlier.

“I wonder if there is an article in Criminal Code for causing a judge to resign?” joked defense counsel Illarion Vasilyev.

He does not rule out that the resignation was connected to the Kotlyar case. Earlier, 43-year-old Judge Svetlana Baykova sent the case back to the prosecutor’s office because new circumstances had come to light: the list of immigrants the defendant had been accused of having registered in her “rubber” flat had changed. Along with the new circumstances has come a new judge, Dmitry Trifonov. Now everything has to begin again, complains Vasilyev, although, during the previous phase, examination of the witnesses alone lasted two months. Since none of the witnesses was present at the October 2 session, a substantive consideration of the case was postponed until October 12.

The substance of the case
Former Obninsk City Assembly deputy Tatyana Kotlyar does not deny that she has registered over a thousand people in her three-room flat on Lermontov Street. She registered them deliberately and made no secret of the fact, even mentioning it in an open letter to President Putin. Former residents of such different countries as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Germany, Israel, and even Brazil are registered in Kotlyar’s flat.

“There were Old Believers from Brazil, who had decided to return to Russia seventy years later,” recounts Kotlyar. “They sold everything  and left. When they showed up on my  doorstep in their old-fashioned caftans, I thought a folk music ensemble had arrived. Now they have received land in rural areas, they have received Russian passports, and they are fine.”

Most of Kotlyar’s wards arrived in Russia under the state program for the resettlement of compatriots. In operation since 2006, the program involves a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for people “brought up in the traditions of Russian culture, [and who] speak Russian and do not wish to lose touch with Russia.” Kaluga Region is one of the regions participating in the program. In these regions, new residents of the Russian Federation are supposed to get full support from the state, including assistance finding employment and even relocation expenses.

“But no one warned them that the first thing they would need to do would be to register themselves at their place of residence,” complains Kotlyar. “Without registration [propiska] it is impossible to draw up documents, send children to school, and register for care at a local health clinic.”

“She didn’t take a kopeck from us”
This was the problem faced by Diana Tigranyan, who moved with her family from Yerevan to Obninsk.

“At the Russian consulate in Armenia they promised us mountains of gold! No one said we would need a residence permit,” recounts Tigranyan. “But here it turned that the owners of the flat we rented were afraid to register strangers. There are firms that charge 15,000 rubles a person for this service. But I have a husband, parents, and two children. Where would I get this money?”

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Diana Tigranyan and family

It was not just anyone who advised Tigranyan to turn to Kotlyar, but the Federal Migration Service itself.

“The female employee who was processing my documents said, ‘I cannot help you in any way, but out in the hallway there is a woman. Try approaching her.'”

At first, Tigranyan thought Kotlyar also made money from residence permits.

“I offered her money, and she turned it down. When we told about this in court, no one believed it. But she really is a saint. She didn’t take a kopeck from us.”

Criminal case
Tatyana Kotlyar became an offender on January 1, 2014, when the so-called law on rubber flats came into force. It makes registering a person somewhere other than their place of residence a criminal offense. Criminal charges were filed in March 2014. Kotlyar was charged under Article 322.2 of the Criminal Code (“Fictitious residence registration of foreign citizens in residential accommodation in the Russian Federation”) and Article 322.3 (“Fictitious local registration of a foreign citizen in residential accommodation in the Russian Federation”). Interestingly, on the list of twelve names entered into evidence by the prosecution, there are two people whom Kotlyar has never seen herself.

“Apparently, some woman at the passport office or post office who handles registration knew about my flat and just registered some more people there, for money or as a favor.”

In recent months, Kotlyar has registered several hundred Ukrainian citizens.

“They come to see me every day. They include both refugees from hot spots and men from other regions who are threatened with being drafted into the army in Ukraine. The Russian government has promised to help, but ultimately these people face the same problem as all immigrants.”

Kotlyar is certain that the law on rubber flats violates human rights.

“This did not happen even under Stalin. Then they sentenced people to camps for residing without a passport or residence permit, but at least they didn’t punish the landlord.”

According to Kotlyar, the government is trying to fight the effect rather than the cause.

“Where there is demand, there will always be supply. The problem is not rubber flats, but the very institution of the residence permit. It should be a matter of simple notification, and its presence or absence should in no way affect the provision of civil rights.”

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Illarion Vasilyev, Tatyana Kotlyar’s defense attorney

She helped solved the crime
Illarion Vasilyev, Kotlyar’s attorney, understands that the human rights activist has deliberately put herself in the way of the new law to draw attention to the problem.

“Yes, it’s her civic stance. She knows she will be held liable, and she has issued a challenge,” says Vasilyev in an interview with DW. “Has she harmed anyone? Yes, she probably has. The service of legalizing compatriots costs a lot of money, and Kotlyar constitutes competition for the firms that make money on this. But the people who are questioned as prosecution witnesses at the trial bow at her feet and say thank you.”

Article 322.2 of the Criminal Code stipulates a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 rubles or imprisonment for up to three years for fictitious registration. The article, however, contains an important proviso.

“A person who commits an offense under this article shall be exempt from criminal liability if he helped solve the crime and if his actions do not constitute another crime.”

According to Vasilyev, no one has helped solve the crime as much as Kotlyar herself has.

Translated by the Russian Reader
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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