By Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow
LONDON (Reuters) – One of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons on Monday called on authorities to tolerate rather than punish hundreds of thousands of workers who have fled abroad from Ukraine’s war in Moscow, arguing the country needs their brainpower .
“People who work for our economy from abroad – whether remotely or not – should not be punished,” billionaire metals executive Vladimir Potanin told the online RBC news portal, calling for people to stop talking about punitive action against them, something that he called “demagogue”. .
He said Moscow should be tolerant even if remote workers held views that Russian patriots disliked, a reference to the fact that many of those who left – including IT specialists – did so to avoid joining the military. being summoned or because they disagreed with what Moscow said. mentions his “special military operation” in Ukraine, which started on February 24 last year.
Potanin is estimated to be Russia’s richest or second richest person thanks to his stake in metal giant Nornickel.
The size of the exodus – estimated by some Russian media at 700,000 people, a figure the Kremlin says is an exaggeration – has fueled fears of a brain drain at a time when Russia is under severe Western economic sanctions.
Maksut Shadaev, the head of Russia’s digital affairs ministry, told parliament in December that about 100,000 IT specialists had left Russia by 2022.
A sometimes vicious debate about how such 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 are never allowed to return home.
Other aggressive politicians have advocated for home workers and emigrants to pay higher taxes and strip them of their passports and Russian assets. They are considering legislation that would ban working from home altogether in some sectors.
Conversely, reports in Russia’s business daily Kommersant of plans being investigated by the digital affairs ministry suggest it is seeking to lure specialists back with reassignment packages and military service waivers.
The ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters, but has made it clear that it opposes proposals to ban IT workers from leaving the country or raise taxes on those who do.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week in a response to online news portal Life that while the state must fight its “enemies”, it must also ensure that Russians who have not taken on hostile attitudes towards their country and its policy, should be able to return home.
Potanin said Moscow desperately needs remote workers, including computer programmers, to help rebuild its battered economy.
“Most of them will continue to work for our country, our economy, our companies. Some will come back, some won’t. So why push them away and prosecute them?” Potanin told RBC.
Programmers who work remotely are “our strength, not our weakness, their brains, their ability to produce a product, which, incidentally, we are woefully short of,” he said, estimating that Russia produces only 20% of its own software could supply needs.
Suggestions that their apartments or other assets should be seized would amount to theft and would weaken Russia’s investment potential, Potanin added.
A doctor who fled Russia for a country in the European Union last February said he was skeptical of any sweeteners the authorities would offer to lure people back.
“Nobody is convinced that these measures will work,” said the doctor, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
“First stop the war and then make people feel in control of their own destiny.”
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow; editing by Gareth Jones)