A shortage in people of working age is no bad thing in and of itself. The United States as it grew from a small east coast colonial fringe into a massive state perpetually suffered from lack of labour. Originally this led to the plantation economy of the south built on the backs of African slaves. In the north and to the west, however, the problem was increasingly solved by rapidly expanding mechanisation in a free market economy. One only has to see the gigantic machines that predominate in mid-western agriculture, the once great plains grazed by buffalo, to marvel at what the free market economy and innovation can accomplish. In Canada, visiting a vast farm run by only one family, it was what convinced Mikhail Gorbachev that Russia had to reform.
Russia is so different, cursed for too many years by central planning and the forced collectivisation of agriculture. It does not have a flourishing free market economy. It never did. And if Putin carries on as at present, it never will. Yeltsin could have made that happen. But after the crisis in sovereign debt of 1998 he handed power not to the liberal modernisers like Boris Nemtsov, as expected, but to a former intelligence officer from St Petersburg.
That was a fateful choice in every respect. And now we see entrepreneurialism crushed by the weight of a deadening bureaucracy and the stench of widespread corruption, with standards of living back where they stood in 2010. Thus the tentative attempts to attract skilled workers from Western Europe made only a couple of years ago failed miserably. And the persecution of legitimate political opposition in the form of Naval’ny is scarcely likely to act as an incentive to those accustomed to democracy.
Even though the cultivation of the land is now in the hands of private ownership, lack of population means the labour is not on hand to exploit it. For decades the Russians have not replaced through live births those who have passed away. Pro-natalist policies stretch only so far, as France has found out over the long term. Germany, which had a similar problem postwar, though highly mechanised, ultimately solved it by importing labour from places like Turkey (1953-1973) and, later, as a result of the Yugoslav civil war, another replacement generation of young families that have transformed the suburbs of a city like Munich; so much so that the population peaked in 2017. And Mrs Merkel did not let in all those refugees supposedly from Syria entirely out of the kindness of her heart.
Annexing Ukraine is not an option for agriculture. On specialist advice the Russian government is now seeking to reverse its stance on the importation of labour from the east, namely Tadzhikistan. The impact on public opinion, never entirely accepting of racial differences, as Cuban and Kenyan students and more recently also the Chechens experienced daily in Moscow, can only be imagined. In a sense those from Central Asia are more familiar as they share a Soviet past for good and ill. But the differences in culture, particularly with those who are Muslims and ethnically have more in common with populations in the Near East, are more profound.
So the argument given is that this will just be seasonal labour for agriculture, spring sowing, autumn harvesting. Soon, however, because Russia has insufficient capital invested in the countryside to mechanise on a North American scale, whatever the government says they will become Gastarbeiter or ausländische Arbeitnehmer. Sure enough, they will be ever more needed, the family will come over, and then they will eventually become citizens.
Russia emerged from a Eurasian past that was forced upon it from outside – anyone who has seen Tarkovsky’s film Ivan Rublyov recalls the terrifying sound of the Mongol horde on horseback across the steppe as Russian villagers scattered for safety. It may well just be a matter of time before it faces a Eurasian future instead from economic necessity shared with those who look to Iran as a benign and familiar near neighbour.
It is of interest to note that now Putin is emphasising that Russia is not just for Russians, that it may have been endangered from the East in the distant past but also from the West. It is a country still in gestation.
See Vzglyad ru:
Путин: Лозунг «Россия для русских» вредит русским и России
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Фото: Михаил Климентьев/ТАСС
Правительство готово поднять Россию чужими руками
Строительство и сельское хозяйство не справляются без мигрантов
Also, Komsomol’skaya pravda:
Минсельхоз обратился в правительство с просьбой посодействовать в возвращении мигрантов на сезонные сельхозработы.
«Не можем набрать людей на зарплату в 30-50 тысяч»: аграрии просят вернуть мигрантов