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Quick Work Permits Halted

The Federal Migration Service has shut down a fast-track method of issuing work permits for foreign executives and specialists, who may now have to wait several months for permits -- and have no certainty of getting them. Those whose permits that expire soon may be unable to get new ones any time soon. "This will hurt the companies with foreign investment that have been accustomed to getting work permits in quite an easy way," said Sergei Melnikov, lawyer with the Your Lawyer legal firm. Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Chernenko said Tuesday that new regulations for the work permits would be published shortly in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Rules come into force after publication in the newspaper. Chernenko, who heads the Federal Migration Service, said existing permits -- which are usually valid for one year -- are still in force. He gave no further details. No one in the Interior Ministry's passport and visa department was available to answer questions on the change Tuesday. A woman in the city of Moscow's migration office on Novinsky Bulvar told a crowd of jostling people wanting fast-track permits that they would have to wait for the new regulations to be issued. The fast-track permits were scrapped Monday in connection with the new law on foreigners, which came into force last month. Government resolutions are needed in a number of areas to meet the requirements of the law. Until Monday, work permits had been issued through a two-tier system signed off by President Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Under that system, highly qualified foreign staff needed to wait just one month to get a work permit to work for companies with foreign investment. In seven years of using the system, Your Lawyer knows of no refusals, Melnikov said. "There were no criteria for refusal in the presidential directive," he said. Under the new law, work permits can be refused for several reasons, including if an applicant poses a security threat to Russia or Russian citizens, if they have submitted falsified documents or untrue information, if they have established a residence abroad, if they have an infectious disease (as determined by the government), or if they are outside Russia for more than six months. Mariana Marchuk, an associate at Baker & McKenzie, said the shutdown of permits came as no surprise. "The announcement is simply the fact that the migration service has realized that it didn't have the right after Nov. 1 to issue these fast-track work permits, because the law does not foresee any exemptions," she said. Baker & McKenzie had been warning companies of the impending change for several months, advising them to reapply for work permits because evidence that an effort to renew permits is better than an expired permit. "I would not say that the struggle for those fast-track work permits has ended, because the business community is definitely pushing for some amendments," Marchuk said. Previously, representative offices of foreign companies were not required to have a permit to hire foreign staff, but now they must have one before applying for new work permits, she said. "My understanding is that 99 percent of companies [with foreign investment] do not have permission," she said. Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, said the chamber is following the issue closely and on Monday filed recommendations with the State Duma on amendments to the law on visas and its relationship to the law on foreigners. "Essentially, we take the approach that the government should give special and expedited treatment to several categories," Somers said. Those categories are foreign business people who are living and working here for some extended period of time, specialists who come to Russia for a short-term assignment and Americans who are working in Russian companies, he said. Lumping many categories of applicants together was what has created a backlog in Washington where, for security checks, many citizens seeking U.S. visas have been put into one large group for checking, Somers said. "We are saying, look, whatever you guys are intending by the legislation, we want you to focus in your own interest on the business community here. Sort us out of there and give us expedited process," he said. Melnikov said executives will have to enter the same process as other foreign workers -- a process that can take up to five months as the authorities decide whether unemployed Russians are available for the jobs applied for in the permits and what the benefits to the economy will be. The city of Moscow has a quota of about 90,000 foreign workers next year. How much room will be left for employees of foreign companies after the tens of thousands of foreigners -- mainly from former Soviet republics -- working in construction, markets and trading centers receive their work permits is unclear, Melnikov said. However, Deputy Interior Minister Chernenko said the Labor Ministry has allowed the migration service flexibility with the number of work permits, and if additional numbers are needed they will be issued. A plastic work permit card with a photograph and information chip is to be introduced in the second half of next year, he said. Melnikov said the 1993 directive had been prepared before Russia was experienced in attracting foreign investment and left a number of loopholes that have been exploited by people in the gray economy. For instance, the directive fails to define a minimum amount of investment, Melnikov said. This meant that a foreigner has been able to register a company for as little as $200, name himself as general director and some colleagues as managers, and then go trading on the street.

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