Written by Andrew Osborne and Alexander Marrow
LONDON (Reuters) – A Russian tycoon called on the authorities on Monday to forgive the hundreds of thousands of workers who have fled abroad because of Moscow’s war in Ukraine rather than punish them, arguing the country needed their brainpower.
“People who work for our economy from outside – remotely or otherwise – should not be punished,” billionaire metallurgist CEO Vladimir Potanin told the RBC news website, calling for an end to talk of punitive measures against them, which he called “demagoguery.” .
Moscow should be tolerant even if remote workers hold views Russian patriots don’t like, he said, pointing to the fact that many who left — including IT professionals — did so to avoid being drafted into the army or because they fell out with Moscow. It is called its own “military operation” in Ukraine, which began on February 24 last year.
Potanin is estimated to be the richest or second richest person in Russia thanks to his stake in metals giant Nornickel.
The scale of the exodus – estimated by some Russian media at up to 700,000 people, a figure the Kremlin has said is exaggerated – has raised fears of a brain drain at a time when Russia is under harsh Western economic sanctions.
Maksut Chaadaev, head of Russia’s Digital Affairs Ministry, told parliament in December that about 100,000 IT professionals would leave Russia in 2022.
A sometimes scathing debate about how these people should be treated has gripped Russia’s political and business elite for weeks.
Hardliners such as former President Dmitry Medvedev have called some of those who fled “traitors” who should not be allowed to return home.
Other hardline politicians have called for workers and immigrants to be hit at a distance with higher taxes and stripping them of their Russian passports and assets. They are considering legislation that would ban telecommuting in some sectors entirely.
Conversely, reports in the Russian business daily Kommersant about plans being considered by the Ministry of Digital Affairs indicate that it wants to attract specialists again with resettlement packages and exemptions from conscription into the army.
The ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment, but made it clear that it opposes proposals to prevent IT workers from leaving the country or to impose higher taxes on those who do.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, in comments last week on online news portal Life, that while the country must fight its “enemies,” it must also ensure that Russians who have not adopted a position hostile to their country and its policies should be able to return. Homepage.
Potanin said Moscow desperately needs remote workers, including computer programmers, to help its battered economy recover.
“Most of them continue to work for our country, our economy and our companies. Some will come back and some won’t. So why should we push them away and persecute them?” Potanin told RBC.
He said that remote programmers are “our strength, not our weakness, their brains, their ability to produce a product, which, by the way, we are woefully lacking”, estimating that Russia was only able to provide 20% of its own software needs.
Potanin added that suggestions that their apartments or other assets should be confiscated amounted to theft and would weaken Russia’s investment potential.
One doctor who fled Russia for an EU country last February said he was skeptical of any sweeteners the authorities might offer to lure people back.
“No one is convinced that these measures will work,” said the doctor, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
“First stop the war and then make the people feel masters of their own destiny.”
(Reporting by Andrew Osborne and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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