Russia’s War on Foreigners

First the Kremlin went after the gays. Now it's the "blacks."


BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — At the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg this week, President Barack Obama will meet with gay and lesbian activists in what amounts to a rebuke of Russia’s recent adoption of draconian anti-gay legislation. But the Russian government has instituted another campaign of mass discrimination — this one targeted at illegal foreign nationals — that won’t be on the agenda. Thousands of immigrants from countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam have been detained across Russia over the past several weeks as part of a broader effort to weed out illegal immigrants living and working in the country.

With more than 4,600 immigrants detained in the Moscow region alone and existing immigrant detention centers overflowing, hundreds of immigrants were sent to a makeshift camp in the capital’s Golyanovo district last month to await deportation proceedings (though the government later pledged to close the camp, after critics compared it to the infamous Soviet-era Gulag). Nonetheless, Russia currently has 21 detention centers, according to the Guardian, and authorities have drafted legislation that would establish another 83 across the country. Meanwhile, on Aug. 29, Russian lawmakers introduced a bill that would make the deportation of illegal immigrants mandatory.

Russia’s immigrant population is second only to that of the United States, with an estimated 11 million immigrants living within its borders. The large annual influx of laborers (known as gastarbeiters) has intensified the fear that ethnic Russians are being overtaken in their own country — a fear that has been inflamed by state officials and media outlets that frequently depict immigrants as lawless threats to public health and safety. Public opinion polls published by the independent Levada Center in July indicate that immigration is now the greatest concern for 55 percent of Muscovites (up from 37 percent in 2007). Nationwide, fully 69 percent of Russians thought that the presence of migrants in their city or region was "excessive," according to another recent Levada poll.

Against this backdrop, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin — who has close ties with President Vladimir Putin — launched an explicit program of ethnic profiling in which police have targeted non-white individuals, demanding to see their identification documents. The raids quickly spread beyond the capital; those unable to produce documentation up-front — including at least several asylum seekers and others with legal residence permits — have been detained and are awaiting deportation after token court hearings.

It all started on July 27, when a police officer was injured outside Moscow’s Matveyevsky market while trying to detain Magomed Magomedov, a suspected rapist who hailed from Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. As police officers were detaining Magomedov, two of his relatives — both of whom insisted that the man was mentally handicapped and innocent — intervened and attacked one of the officers, fracturing his skull. The immigration raids began several days later.

The irony of the current raids, of course, is that immigrants had nothing to do with the original incident that sparked them. But while they may not technically be immigrants, Russians tend to group Dagestanis, as well as Chechens, together with Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz nationals in the context of the country’s flourishing Slavic nationalism, which pits ethnic Russians against non-Slavic races. This hostility is made all the more fraught by the demographic decline of Russia’s Slavic population, which has suffered from low birth rates and low life expectancy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

High profile incidents of violence propagated by "blacks" — as North Caucasians and immigrants are sometimes derogatorily called — have seeped into the public consciousness and fueled the anti-immigrant fury. One such incident occurred 2006, when a brawl broke out at a restaurant in the northern Russian town of Kondopoga between a group of ethnic Russians and a gang of Chechens, allegedly called to the restaurant by its Azeri owner to settle a dispute. The Chechens arrived brandishing baseball bats and knives, and by the end of the night two Russians had been killed and dozens gruesomely injured. In the aftermath of the incident, riots broke out in Kondopoga, as ethnic Russians stormed the streets to avenge the killings.

Not long after the Kondopoga riots, in 2007, the Russian government passed a package of immigration reforms, which instituted the first quotas for immigrant workers in the country’s post-Soviet history.

But while incidents like the Kondopoga restaurant brawl assist officials in fomenting public fears with talk of immigrants’ rising crime rates (the vast majority of these crimes, by the way, are non-violent crimes like forging documents), the country’s neo-Nazi and radical nationalist movements have flourished, making the lives of Russian immigrants ever more dangerous. In addition to labor exploitation and human trafficking, attacks on non-white minorities have become commonplace and often go unpunished. In 2011, for example, the mortality rate of Tajik laborers in Russia was about one in 1,000. In other words, it was as dangerous to be a Tajik immigrant in Russia in 2011 as it was to be an African American in the U.S. South in 1930. Meanwhile, the frequent refusal to rent apartments to immigrant laborers has meant that living conditions are often hardly better than those in the criticized Golyanovo camp. In some cases, landlords illegally register dozens — sometimes hundreds — of immigrants to a single apartment, forcing them to sleep in shifts.

While a kind of hierarchy of immigrants exists — Kyrgyz nationals, for example, tend to speak better Russian and are more respected by locals than Tajiks or Uzbeks — insults and intimidation are common, and "ponayekhali tut," an idiom that roughly translates to "the hoards have come," is common parlance. On some occasions — like on April 20, Hitler’s birthday — abuse can escalate into outright violence and many migrants stay home for fear of being attacked on the streets.

It is widely acknowledged that the current deportation campaign is the product of populist pandering ahead of Moscow’s September mayoral elections, and will likely die down once the campaign season wraps up. Politicians across the political spectrum endorse an anti-immigrant agenda, and even the opposition candidate and anti-corruption blogging star Alexey Navalny has expressed anti-immigrant nationalist sentiments.  

"The acting mayor and all of the other mayoral candidates are competing against each other on the basis of xenophobic statements and rhetoric," Sergei Reshetin, a Moscow immigration activist told me last month. But, according to Reshetin, many Muscovites understand perfectly well that authorities are reluctant to address the root causes of illegal migration.

Indeed, despite its nationalist rhetoric, the government faces several major hurdles in actually following through with its threats in the long term. For one, this rhetoric directly contradicts the needs of the Russian labor market. In an unfortunate catch-22, the same demographic crisis that has elevated the country’s existential angst has also created a situation in which there are not enough people to staff Russia’s hydrocarbon-financed construction boom. The World Bank projects that Russia’s working-age population will decrease by as many as 17 million people by 2030, contracting the country’s indigenous labor force by close to 20 percent.

Because of Russia’s high demand for labor, government-led efforts to stem the flow of migrants into the country have made little headway. The 2007 immigration policy reforms, for example, technically banned immigrants from working in the retail sector. Yet a walk through any of Moscow’s main markets will immediately confirm that foreign laborers haven’t been squeezed out of the trade. Immigrants continue to work in the sector, with many finding loopholes in the work permit registration process or by working illegally. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants living in the country vary widely, but fall somewhere in the range of three to six million people. It is likely that around 30 percent of Moscow’s immigrant population is illegal.

But while officials lambast these illegal immigrants and talk of mass deportations, many within the halls of power feed off of the black market created by illegal immigrants. A vast network of intermediaries — providing immigrants with illegal permits at inflated prices — has developed to serve immigrants who cannot obtain legal status. According to Russia’s Federal Migration Service director, Konstantin Romodanovsky, these middlemen have created a shadow economy that amounts to almost $1 billion. As with every lucrative industry in Russia, this shadow market inevitably has ties to the government.

Putin has commented frequently on the need to crack down on illegal middlemen. But if the Russian strongman’s recent anti-corruption kick, which has suspiciously singled out high-profile officials affiliated with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s more liberal faction of elites, is any indication, the most that will occur is a series of symbolic and targeted attacks. In the recent anti-immigration campaign in Moscow, six illegal intermediaries have been arrested — enough to make a point without rocking the boat too much.

Yet to prove to the world its resurgence as a superpower and to keep Russia’s name in the ring with the rest of the BRIC emerging economies — Brazil, India, and China — the country must maintain strong economic growth, which has been slumping well below Putin’s 5 percent target of late. The government, no doubt, recognizes the importance of immigration to a strong economy, and in June, Putin approved a plan outlining a migration strategy for the country through 2025. Though it offered little by way of concrete policy, the scheme did emphasize that immigration into Russia was good for the country. Since then, however, the regime’s ever-active pendulum has swung back in the opposite direction as it searches for ways to reconcile its need for economic growth with the political advantages of fanning anti-foreign public sentiments.  

The cruelty that has become an all-too-common refrain in today’s Russia stems, at least in part, from the ingrained belief in Russian exceptionalism — the idea that Russian morality is unique and therefore beyond reproach. Originating in ancient Kievan Rus, this idea was propagated by the Orthodox Church in the Middle Ages, and was prominently displayed in the communist revolutionary claims of the 20th century. Today, it remains alive and well, as evidenced by Russian pole-vaulter and Olympic idol Yelena Isinbayeva’s defense of her country’s recent homophobic legislation. "Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands," she said after winning the world title last month. Predictably, Isinbayeva’s defense did not appease Western critics, who continue to call for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Ironically, these Olympics, like all of Russia’s other recent mega-construction projects, have been built on the backs of migrant laborers, many of whom experienced exploitation at the hands of their employers. In documenting the abuses faced by migrant workers at Olympic construction sites, Human Rights Watch interviewed a Serbian construction worker who had taken part in a protest over withheld wages. When the workers approached the local labor inspectorate to make a complaint about their employer, "the officials didn’t seem to care at all," said the worker. "They showed no understanding of how we were being treated. ‘You can go home if you want!’ was all they told us."

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