New visa rules in Russia are stoking anxiety and frustration among Jewish groups here, forcing them to get in line quickly with new laws to avoid fines or the expulsion of their foreign employees from Russia.
While the changes, which went into effect Oct. 18, do not specifically target Jews, the new rules for multiple-entry business visas — which cover the sub-sections of religious, humanitarian and cultural visas — are having a huge impact on Jewish organizations.
Large Jewish groups, some of which employ hundreds of foreign workers and their families, are fighting their way through the maze of paperwork and bureaucracy surrounding the new rules, and many still do not understand exactly how the rules are to be applied.
The new rules, hastily instituted by the Russian government amid the heavily anti-Western rhetoric of Decemberâ€™s parliamentary campaign, are still not clearly understood by those who will be most affected by them.
The timing of these changes, as well as the many reciprocal penalties for countries with â€œunfavorableâ€ visa regimes toward Russia, has led many to conclude that politics, both domestic and international, were as much behind the decision to change the rules as purported tax and security concerns.
â€œI think that the immigration laws and tourist laws became much stricter. Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™s connected with the elections, but connected with the general situation in the country,â€ said Baruch Gorin, a spokesman for the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. â€œWe donâ€™t think that this is good news because as for us, we are sure that the aim of Russia should be to be more open now instead of more closed.â€
Under the previous regime, anyone seeking to work for a foreign organization in Russia could enter the country on a one-year, multiple-entry visa and stay for a full 360 days. Because the workers werenâ€™t required to apply for the more difficult-to-obtain â€œworkâ€ visa, and as such didnâ€™t receive their salaries in Russia, they did not have to pay taxes to the Russian government.
Following the visaâ€™s expiration, the holder would jump out on a â€œvisa runâ€ to a neighboring country and renew the visa. Some foreigners have been using this system to stay for more than a decade at a time.
As at non-Jewish organizations, this method has been the norm at agencies like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, whose workers are here on humanitarian visas.
But Russiaâ€™s government has accused thousands of foreign visitors, ostensibly in the country for short stays to conduct business, of exploiting this loophole to avoid paying taxes in Russia. Under the new rules, the visa has been reduced to 180 days, and the holder of the 180-day business visa may only stay in the country for 90 of those days, which the government says is in line with foreign norms.
The new rules present two clear points of concern to Jewish groups, particularly the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities.
First, the reciprocal nature of the new rules means that foreign nationals no longer can rely on their â€œvisa runsâ€ of old, but must return to their home countries to obtain new visas. This also applies to family members of employees.
Second, most of the federationâ€™s rabbis in the larger communities are foreign, which means that without work permits, they will be forced to spend half the year away from their congregations. In the farther-flung regions, many of them are able to obtain so-called green cards, which allow them to stay without a work permit. But in larger cities with more foreigners, these sought-after cards are in short supply.
For the Chabad-led federation, which has an estimated 500-plus foreign employees and family members in the country, most of whom hold either Israeli or U.S. citizenship, this constitutes a tremendous weight on operating costs. Employees will be able to stay in Russia for no more than 90 days out of every 180, and every 180 days they will have to go to their countries of origin to renew their visas. That’s a lot of plane tickets.
Beyond these particular restrictions, the specifics of the new visa rules are murky, leaving many Jewish organizations very much in the dark.
When officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry and Federal Migration Service held a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in November during which they explained the new rules, Russian officials were at a loss to answer many of the foreignersâ€™ questions, or even direct their interlocutors to the appropriate department for a response.
JTA, too, made multiple requests for clarification to Russiaâ€™s Federal Migration Service, but the requests were not answered.
This lack of clarity is causing a great deal of frustration among Jewish groups scrambling to adjust to the new rules.
â€œThe problem is that when you ask some clerk, they have no clear answers for your questions,â€ said one official from a Jewish agency who spoke on condition of anonymity. â€œThey understand that there are going to be changes, but then you ask them the details and they have no answers.â€
Because of fears of commenting on matters in a political climate increasingly hostile towards foreigners, most Jewish agencies would not agree to speak on the record.
Privately, however, Jewish organizational officials said the new rules were creating myriad problems made worse by the lack of an accurate understanding of how the rules apply to them.
For example, the JDC is not clear on whether its employees are humanitarian workers or religious workers, and what that means for their visas. Despite repeated questioning of government workers, the organization says it still has not received clear-cut guidance.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia has hired a team of lawyers to sort out the complicated new rules.
The greatest concern among Jewish groups here is that their workers will be kicked out of the country. There are hundreds of foreign Jewish aid workers in the country, and any infraction — increasingly possible given the vagaries of the new regime — could result in harsh punitive measures against the employee or the organization.
This may be why even in private conversations, Jewish aid officials were carefully vague about how many foreign staffers they employ.
The Russian government says its new rules are no different than those in other countries.
â€œIf you take a look at the European Union countries, we will see that they have exactly the same system,â€ Alexander Aksenov, an official with the Federal Migration Service, said in his speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in November.
But when asked about specifics, Aksenov had little to offer.
In conversations with Jewish aid employees, it seems the wait for clarifying answers is the most frustrating aspect of the new visa regime.
â€œThe situations now is, letâ€™s see, and weâ€™ll be able to correct it in the next two months,â€ said one Jewish community employee. But knowing that in Russia waiting for the bureaucracy is something of a national pastime, the employee added a qualifier: â€œMaybe.â€