The Moscow Times reports that Russia has enacted a set of draconian neo-Soviet restrictions on the movements of foreigers within Russia. Logically, all Western governments with citizens subject to these restrictions should now adopt the same rules for Russians traveling in the West. Of course, these restrictions provide the Kremlin with yet anther excuse to harass, jail and eject any foreigner who dares to fail to toe the Kremlin line:
Thinking of jetting up to St. Petersburg for a week to see White Nights this summer? If you're a foreigner and you want to spare your employer from a possible $30,000 fine, you'd better make sure the government knows you're leaving town. According to a new law that came into effect Jan. 15, foreigners are now required to hand over their registration papers to migration officials -- via their employer or other sponsor -- every time they leave the country and re-register upon subsequent entry into the country. But the law is steeped in vagaries. Visa agencies say foreigners could incur heavy fines for their employers if they neglect to inform them of even a short trip out of town.
Hotels, for their part, say the amount of documentation on their foreign guests has become unduly burdensome. At least one St. Petersburg hotel has stopped admitting foreigners altogether.
The new law says a foreigner's "inviting party" -- an employer, landlord, hotel or other Russian host -- is required to inform local migration officials of the foreigner's arrival within three working days of entering the country. The inviting party is also required to inform authorities if the foreigner leaves Russia and it has two working days from the day of departure to do so. "The foreigner has to be stricken off the Federal Migration Service register, because he can't be registered with the Federal Migration Service if he is not in Russia," said Zalina Filimonova, spokeswoman for the Moscow branch of the migration service. "That's pure logic."
The law has been touted by migration officials as a simplification of the registration process. On paper, after all, the inviting party is merely required to submit information about the foreigner's passport, visa and migration card to the local branch of the migration service. Migration officials then issue a registration card that the foreigner carries at all times as proof of being in the country legally. The card makes obsolete the previous practice of placing a registration stamp in passports.
In theory, the entire process can even be done at the post office, with a post office receipt serving as confirmation of a foreigner's registration. But the new procedures could prove to be quite a hassle for foreigners who travel often -- either internationally or within Russia, said Yekaterina Elekchyan of Your Lawyer, a legal firm specializing in visa and work-regulation issues. "On the one hand, it's easier in that the landlord doesn't have to physically go down to the DEZ," Elekchyan said, referring to the local building-utilities administrator offices that were obligatory stopovers for foreigners' landlords under the old registration rules. "But for a foreigner who enters and leaves the country quite often, it's not very convenient to have to turn in documents every time." Foreigners must turn in their registration card when they leave for another region, Filimonova said. Then, upon arrival, the inviting party must register the foreigner with local migration officials within three days and inform them of his departure no later than two days after he leaves.
Under the law, the inviting party is fully responsible for registering the foreigner. According to information posted on the web site of the Moscow branch, fines for breaching the rules run up to 4,000 rubles for a Russian citizen hosting a foreigner and up to 800,000 rubles ($30,000) for employers. One large Western-managed company informed its foreign employees recently in an internal memo that they would have any fines deducted from their salaries if they did not inform the company of their international travel plans. Federal Migration Service spokesman Denis Soldatikov said Friday that authorities would not be "hunting" down violators. "But if people are found in violation, they will be fined," he said.
Inexplicably, Soldatikov contradicted the deadlines and procedures given in the law itself. He said the inviting party must inform authorities of a foreigner's arrival within 30 days and departure with 10 days. Soldatikov -- in another contradiction of what the law says -- also insisted that a foreigner does not have to turn in the registration card upon leaving the country.
Alexei Filipenkov, deputy chairman of Association of European Businesses' visa task force, said the law is so muddled and riddled with holes that it is impossible to enforce. "Nobody knows what is going on," he said. "I ask one migration official what to do, and he tells me one thing. On the same day I go to another official, and they tell me something completely different. Nobody knows what is going on because the rules are constantly being changed."
One group that is already lobbying for changes in the law are hoteliers. One large Moscow hotel said it has had to hire two employees to deal exclusively with filling out the increased paperwork for foreign guests, and because the local branch of the migration service is understaffed, the employees themselves must sit down and enter the data into the migration service's system. "Until our employee sits down and enters every single form in to their system by manually typing, no one is registered," said an executive from the hotel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing company policy. Soldatikov, the migration service spokesman, denied that hotel employees might be entering information into the migration service's database. "Access to those computers is restricted," he said. Soldatikov said hotels had no grounds for complaint and that the system had changed little for them.
One small hotel chain in St. Petersburg, however, has stopped accepting foreigners for fear that a single violation of the new law could result in a hefty fine. "Fortunately it's not high season yet, and primarily Russian citizens are on business trips," Marina Slesareva, deputy head of the Rinaldi chain, told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "It's scary to think what will happen in the summer. Not one single branch of the Federal Migration Service can tell us what to do under the new rules."