By Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow
LONDON (Reuters) – One of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons on Monday called on authorities to tolerate rather than punish the hundreds of thousands of workers who have fled abroad due to Moscow’s war in Ukraine, claiming that the country needed their brains.
“People who work for our economy from abroad – remotely or otherwise – should not be punished,” billionaire metals executive Vladimir Potanin told RBC’s online news portal, calling for an end to talks. on punitive measures against them, which he described as “demagoguery”. .
He said Moscow needed to be tolerant even if remote workers had views Russian patriots didn’t like, a reference to the fact that many of those who left – including IT people – did so to avoid d conscripted into the army or because they disagreed with what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, launched 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 at 700,000 by some Russian media, a figure the Kremlin has suggested is exaggerated – has fueled fears of a brain drain at a time when Russia is under tough sanctions Western economies.
Maksut Shadaev, the head of Russia’s digital affairs ministry, told parliament in December that around 100,000 IT workers had left Russia in 2022.
An sometimes vitriolic debate over how to treat these people 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 never be allowed to return home.
Other hawkish politicians have advocated hitting remote workers and emigrants with higher taxes and stripping them of their Russian passports and assets. They are considering legislation that would completely ban remote work in certain sectors.
Conversely, reports from the Russian business daily Kommersant on the plans being reviewed by the Digital Affairs Ministry suggest it wants to entice the specialists with relocation packages and exemptions from being drafted into the military.
The ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters, but made clear it opposes proposals to ban IT workers from leaving the country or levy higher taxes on those who do.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in comments last week on the online news portal Life, said that if the state must fight its “enemies”, it must also ensure that the Russians who have not adopted a hostile stance towards their country and its policies can return. residence.
Potanin said Moscow badly needs remote workers, including computer programmers, to help its struggling economy recover.
“Most of them continue to work for our country, our economy, our businesses. Some of them will come back, some will not. So why push them back and persecute them?” Potanin told RBC.
Programmers working remotely are “our strength, not our weakness, their brains, their ability to produce a product, which, by the way, we sorely lack”, he said, believing that Russia was not able to provide only 20% of its own software. Needs.
Suggestions that they should have their apartments or other property confiscated would amount to theft and weaken Russia’s investment potential, Potanin added.
A doctor who fled Russia for a European Union country last February said he was skeptical of any sweeteners authorities might offer to lure people in.
“Nobody is convinced that these measures will work,” said the doctor, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“Stop the war first, then make people feel in control of their destiny.”
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Gareth Jones)