Ever wanted to visit the northern Siberian city of Novy Urengoi, Russia’s “gas capital”?
You may have missed your chance.
Novy Urengoi has slapped harsh new access restrictions on both Russians and foreigners, a dramatic move that has sparked mixed reactions. Officials say they want to protect the affluent city from unbridled immigration, a surge in crime and drug trafficking, and – some claim – an influx of radical Muslims.
“We are limiting the entry of unsanctioned visitors, people who
come here without an invitation, a work permit, or proof they are on a business trip,” Gennady Serdyuk, the deputy head of Novy Urengoi’s administration, told RFE/RL. “The goal is to regulate the presence of idle people who come to our area without any purpose, especially since this is a strategic region where oil and gas is extracted.”
Under the new rules, introduced last week, anyone wishing to visit Novy Urengoi must first apply for a special permit based on an “invitation” by a local company or a family member living in the city. The process takes four weeks for Russian citizens and eight weeks for foreigners.
Fear of migrants
The restrictions appear to be a response to recently released official figures showing that crime in Novy Urengoi increased by 64% in 2011, while the number of migrants has risen by 19% since the beginning of this year.
Serdyuk said Urengoi, built in the 1970s close to the world’s second-largest natural-gas field, was Russia’s third-most-popular destination for migrants after Moscow and St Petersburg. But the recent migration boom, he said, has put a severe burden on the city’s infrastructure.
Local officials have also reported a rise in Islamic extremism in the region. A local Interior Ministry official recently voiced hope that the strict measures would help curb the influence of Islamic groups in Novy Urengoi, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and Imarat Kavkaz, both banned in Russia as terrorist groups.
Khaydar Khafizov, a mufti who has been living in the city for 17 years, says these concerns are not unfounded.
“Some migrants who have nowhere to go come to us straight from the railway station. We give them shelter and food in the mosque for three days. We get to know them and if they express radical views, we try to reason with them,” Khafizov says. “They don’t become radicals here. Many already hold radical views when they come here, mainly from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, or the Caucasus.”
Moving the border
Russia has two types of cities with restricted access: “closed cities”, which are home to strategic military or nuclear facilities, and towns situated near a border.
Since Novy Urengoi hosts neither military nor nuclear facilities, officials have opted for placing the city of 100,000 in Russia’s border zone. The decision has struck many as odd, considering the city lies just under the Arctic Circle, thousands of kilometers from the nearest land border.
”They used the only constitutional instrument available: the border-zone regime,” says Natalia Zubarevich, director of the regional program of the Moscow-based Independent Institute for Social Policy. “But what are border authorities doing there in the first place? They have nothing to do there.”
The new restrictions have seen the deployment of border checkpoints outside Novy Urengoi. Travelers without an entry permit are turned back or, if traveling by rail, taken off trains 70 kilometers away from the city.
Novy Urengoi is not the first city in Russia’s resource-rich north seeking to control the influx of visitors. The nickel-mining city of Norilsk and a handful of neighboring towns introduced access restrictions in the early 2000s, but these measures targeted mostly foreigners.
Xenophobic, but effective
The blanket restrictions imposed in Novy Urengoi are also being criticized as too radical an approach to tackling social problems tied to migration. Although the decision was made at the federal level, commentators suspect the initiative to “cut off” Novy Urengoi came from local authorities.
”They have been unable to cope with the immigration flow, primarily from Central Asia. Local residents have also been complaining about migrants from the Caucasus, who are mostly involved in trade, sometimes in drug trafficking,” Zubarevich says. “The local population had been asking authorities to limit entry to the city. It is a mass, harsh, xenophobic, bottom-up initiative.”
The 2010 appointment of Sergei Sobyanin, a native of the region, as Moscow mayor may have helped Novy Urengoi to successfully lobby for its special status, analysts say.
A number of locals say the restrictions took them by surprise and they complain that the new rules could disrupt their plans to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives from other cities. But in the long run, the benefits will eventually outweigh the drawbacks for Novy Urengoi residents, according to political analyst Nikolai Petrov.
“The city has colossal amounts of money, which has also brought a surge in criminality and drug use,” Petrov says. “Such cities are usually interested in limiting entry, and if local authorities are able to lobby for restrictions, those can be advantageous for them. It makes the life of local authorities and police significantly easier.”