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March 31, 2003
More Russian Visa Hassles
Katherine Ters contributed this article to the Rosbalt News Agency

Clear as mud is probably the best way to describe the provisions of a new law regulating the entry, residence and employment of foreigners in Russia. Passed last July, the law is the first unified code covering the status of foreigners. Several of the law's key provisions have come into effect over the past few months, causing headaches and confusion for Russia's international community.

Long delays in obtaining work permits and concerns about registration procedures and migration cards provoked St. Petersburg's International Business Association (SPIBA) to host a seminar aimed at unraveling the law's implications. SPIBA members gathered at the Hotel D'Angleterre last Thursday evening to listen to presentations from representatives from the Federal Employment Service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

By the end of the seminar, it was clear that the new law was having more than just teething problems. Russia's new immigration procedures are poorly thought out and slower than ever. The new rules have also been poorly communicated to local authorities, who haven't been allocated adequate resources to implement the changes in a timely or effective way.

It's disappointing that this law - which replaced a Soviet code dating from 1981 - has not simplified or sped up Russia's cumbersome immigration procedures. The hoops you need to jump through in order to get visas and work permits do nothing to encourage visitors and are just another reason for international investors to put Russia in the too-hard basket.

'The aim of the new legislation was to streamline immigration policy,' said Dmitry Cherneiko, Head of St. Petersburg's Federal Employment Service. 'However, in order to better regulate our relations with countries from the former Soviet Union, Russia has injured its relations with other countries from which it is trying to attract investment.'

One of the law's provisions was the introduction of migration cards for all foreign citizens from February 10 this year. The aim of the migration card is to better monitor and control the influx of illegal migrant workers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - countries whose citizens do not need visas for Russia.

All foreigners entering Russia for more than three days, now need to complete a migration card. The card has two parts: one which is taken by passport control on entry, and one which needs to be kept, registered and submitted to passport control on departure.

Foreigners who have multiple-entry visas need to re-register and have their migration cards re-stamped every time they enter the country. Although in practice, this may not be necessary - according to Mikhail Utyatsky from the St. Petersburg Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (GUVD). At the seminar, Utyatsky said that if someone had a stamped migration card and a valid registration stamp in their passport, then they shouldn't be penalized if they have only registered once.

It's still not clear whether all foreigners who entered Russia before February 10 need to get a migration card before leaving, however, Natalia Safronova, from Salans law firm, advised that only foreigners without visas - CIS citizens for example - will need to do this.

Some information presented at the seminar conflicted with what SPIBA companies had been told by local authorities. Utyatsky assured one SPIBA member that he didn't have to obtain a separate migration card and registration for his three-year old child, even though he had been told by the local registering authority - OVIR - that he did.

The most contentious issue for SPIBA members was not migration cards though; most questions were concerned with the long delays associated with obtaining work permits and which entities could apply for these permits at all.

'It used to take companies with foreign investment about three days to apply for a work permit for a foreign citizen,' Safronova said. 'Now, the procedure is taking from three to four months.' It also requires that the company gets permission from four different government departments. Sebastian FitzLyon, a member of SPIBA's executive committee and the Australian Honorary Consul in St. Petersburg, said that delays could take up to six months and that this was a serious problem and a potential hindrance to foreign investment. 'It's now not possible for a businessperson to come to Russia and immediately start a business or start work in an existing enterprise, unless they operate semi-legally under a tourist or temporary single-entry business visa,' FitzLyon said.

In practice, many foreigners work on business visas, but getting business-visa invitations is slower than it used to be. Invitations for multiple-entry six-month business visas now take a minimum of six weeks.

To be able to invite foreigners to Russia, a Russian legal entity needs to register with the GUVD, but it's unclear whether offices and branches of foreign companies will be able to do this. 'The procedures involved with obtaining a work permit are still changing and haven't been definitively settled yet,' FitzLyon said. 'Federal departments in the provinces are still waiting for instructions from the center on how to implement the new laws.'

Under the new code, most functions associated with visas and registration were transferred from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to the GUVD. 'The GUVD is short of staff and grossly overworked,' FitzLyon said. 'That combined with the upcoming tourist season and the transfer of new functions from MID has made the situation very difficult.'

FitzLyon said that he though local officials were genuinely doing the best they could under difficult circumstances, but that, realistically, it would take a few months before all the implications of the new law became clear.

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