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Kremlin Reaches out to Homesick Germans

Twickel, Nikolaus von. "Kremlin Reaches out to Homesick Germans." Moscow Times, 12 September 2007, 1.


For truck driver Boris Renner, a native Siberian, the prospect of returning to Russia after seven difficult years in Germany is an attractive one.

"I tried everything, from gardening to being a caretaker in a school, but there is just no work here for me," Renner said by telephone from Neuenkirchen, near the French border in Germany.

New legislation may help tip the scale in his decision.

In the face of a worsening demographic crisis, Russia is formulating plans to lure some of Germany's more than 2 million immigrants from former Soviet republics back to quickly depopulating regions. In a move to attract the ethnic Germans back -- or at least keep them from leaving -- the government is promoting a program worth more than 2.8 billion rubles ($109 million) to improve local infrastructure -- specifically improving housing, health care and education.

While some observers welcomed the initiative, immigrant representatives suggested that it came too late and that only a few thousand people would come. Last week, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov officially sanctioned the funds, the lion's share of which will come from the federal budget.

The program, published on the government's web site, aims to develop Germans' potential by calling for their return to compact settlements on the Volga and in western Siberia. The government says some 8,000 have returned so far but that many have had to live in makeshift homes, including railway cars.

Germany's Association of Germans from Russia says that while some are willing to return, the plan only would have worked if it had been adopted three or four decades ago.

"Russia has missed the boat," the association's deputy chairman, Adolf Braun, said by telephone from Chemnitz.

Braun said he was amused to see that his countrymen's plight had suddenly risen to such a political priority. He criticized Moscow for not yet having made amends for the Volga Germans' expulsion from their autonomous republic in what is now the Saratov region.

Most of Russia's Germans are descendants of farmers invited by Catherine the Great in the 18th century to settle along the southern Volga. They were deported to Central Asia and Siberia as potential traitors under Stalin in 1941 and began resettling in West Germany in the 1950s, where legislation then granted them, their spouses and descendants citizenship -- an opportunity still open to them today.

After the Soviet collapse, their exodus swelled, with about 100,000 to 200,000 leaving each year. More than 2 million ethnic Germans from former Soviet republics were repatriated from 1990 to 2006, according to government data from Berlin.

The government said that in 2004 around 600,000 Germans still lived in the country. Germans living in the Soviet Union numbered about 2 million, according to the last census, in 1989.

Experts explain the discrepancy by the fact that ethnic Germans tended to underreport their nationality in the census, while the German government data includes citizenship bestowed on spouses and descendants.

The mass departure has almost halted, with just 7,600 immigrants from former Soviet republics arriving in Germany in 2006, including some 5,100 from Russia.

Though there are no reliable numbers, there is evidence that the number of those heading back is growing.

Renner, 59, left the republic of Altai, for Germany seven years ago and found work through a government agency. But since he was laid off for the second time in 2004, he has not found suitable employment.

He is torn. He wants to be near his daughter and two grandsons in Germany. But his son, Yevgeny, has already returned to Siberia. "He found work and is happy. He always asks me to come," Renner said.

Renner is typical for returnees who arrived since the late 1990s and found it difficult to adapt to life in Germany. "It is unemployment, cultural and mental differences, as well as language difficulties that make life hard for these people," said Elmar Welt, who assists immigrants wishing to return to their home countries with Heimatgarten, a German nongovernmental organization.

"They are just homesick," he said.

Welt said he believed that there were probably tens of thousands of Germans who wished to return to Russia. He said the program was not bad and could help, though there was still little evidence of how it would be put into practice in the regions.

But Braun predicted that there would be no exodus and said the returnees were isolated cases. He conceded, however, that conditions in Germany had worsened. "People here are no longer prepared to integrate Germans from Russia as they did in the 1970s and '80s," he said. Furthermore, tight labor markets and bureaucratic hurdles made life harder for newcomers.

Braun also said those arriving more recently tended to be poorer and some were even forced to immigrate because of economic hardship. This gave them a more difficult time than their predecessors, who also tended to be better educated, he said.

Russia, on the other hand, urgently needs immigrants. The population has declined by 6 million since 1993 to a current total of about 142 million people, according to the State Statistics Service. The government has warned that the population could fall below 100 million by 2050.

The main reason is a low birthrate and a very high death rate, which is not being offset by the country's existing immigration, said Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Institute of Demographics at Moscow's Higher School of Economics

Vishnevsky said he did not believe that the Germans would solve the country's woes. "I do not think they will come," he added.

But a Kremlin spokesman defended the program, pointing out that it was long term. "One should not expect it to have an immediate effect," said the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

It is associated with efforts to bring back ethnic Russians living in other former Soviet republics, he said.

Last summer, President Vladimir Putin endorsed a six-year plan encouraging compatriots living abroad to return by promising them cash and social benefits. Two years earlier he personally handed a passport to Andrei Schmemann, a Russian emigre who had lived in France for 75 years without citizenship.

Peskov conceded that returning was often a difficult decision. "For many families, Russia is terra incognita although it is their motherland." It is the government's job to create more favorable conditions for returnees, he said. "This job takes a lot of time and effort, but it is being done," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Moscow Times.

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