Russia closes gates to Siberian gas
city By Claire Bigg
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
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
"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."
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.
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."
RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service
contributed to this report.