Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union
Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about the place of foreigners in society.
In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the SOVA Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence. This year, that figure has soared to 437 attacks — 47 of them murders — on non-Russians. Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia's immigration laws, citing the need to "protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large."
Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin's request, the government imposed new restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals a severe economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.
Even well-educated Russians are becoming more hostile to immigrants:
But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia's disgruntled and poorly educated. "In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people; well-educated, politically active youth; and even by academics," said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center. "It has become the dominating idea in society, and that's a bad sign."
Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm in suburban Moscow 18 months ago and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for "locals." The group takes aim at migrants who "violate our laws and traditions," Fateyev said.
His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000 strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, "Don't buy goods from migrants — buy from Russian traders!"
"The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal," said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. "They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don't know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents and they may have an infection that spreads."
Others are also starting anti-immigrant groups:
While Fateyev's group is just beginning to build steam, Alexander Belov's Movement Against Illegal Immigration already is a national phenomenon.
Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.
Belov, 30, calls Russia's problem with migrants "a disease that needs to be cured right now. I'd even say it's a little too late."
What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the same nationalist sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the nationalist slogan "Russia for Russians." Fifty-two percent support restricting the number of migrants who can enter Russia.
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