Migrant woes remain a challenge for Russia

RUSSIAN police have restored order to the streets of Moscow, after days of race riots that left scores of people wounded and led to more than 3,000 arrests.

The immediate reason for the violence was the murder of a local Russian, allegedly by an ethnic Chechen of Muslim faith who is yet to be identified.

But tensions between Russians and the predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been simmering for years and represent a significant, enduring challenge to President Vladimir Putin.

Islam has long been Russia's second-biggest religion, after the Orthodox strand of Christianity, which is the country's predominant faith.

However, for much of the past century this had scant impact on the lifestyle of the average Russian, since the overwhelming majority of Muslims lived in remote communities.

This changed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Chechen Muslims - who have always held Russian citizenship - moved from their historic hamlets in the Caucasus to Moscow. And they were followed by various ethnic groups from the newly independent republics of Central Asia.

No reliable figures for these migration flows are available. But observers estimate that 800,000 Kyrgyz and three million Uzbeks live in Russia, out of populations of 5.4 million and 28.2 million, respectively, in the two Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

And in Tajikistan, the poorest country in Central Asia, as many as 1.5 million of its 6.9 million people work abroad, the vast majority of them in Russia. According to data from Russia's labour ministry, up to 40 per cent of construction workers nationwide are migrants, mostly Muslims.

Nowhere is this changing ethnic landscape more evident than in Moscow, a city of 11 million inhabitants, among them 2.5 million Muslims.

The Russian capital is now one of Europe's most important Muslim cities, an astonishing turn of events entirely ignored by the media and politicians outside Russia.

Almost all the migrants are young, single males, uneducated and unskilled, precisely the demographic profile that is statistically prone to criminality.

And since most of the migrants were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their knowledge of the Russian language is poor, while their adherence to Islam is particularly strong.

The authorities like to dismiss frequent bouts of racial violence as the work of football hooligans. But the reality is that racism is deeply entrenched in Russian society, with phrases such as "black bums" being some of the more respectable verbal abuses regularly hurled at migrants.

Nor are the authorities striving to distinguish between Muslims who are Russian citizens and those who are migrants: All are usually lumped together as a "problem".

The growing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash puts Mr Putin in a predicament.

On the one hand, the Russian leader encourages a new brand of nationalism, one which is dominated by the Orthodox Christian religion.

But at the same time, Mr Putin is resisting moves to impose visa restrictions on Central Asians because Moscow still aims to keep these former Soviet republics within Russia's sphere of influence.

And nothing does it as well as migration: Remittances from workers in Russia constitute a critical pillar of Central Asia's wealth, accounting for 15 per cent of Uzbekistan's economy, a third of Kyrgyzstan's and no less than half of Tajikistan's gross domestic product.

This is a useful lever which the Russian leader is loath to relinquish.

So, Mr Putin is torn between a regional strategy which argues for open borders and pressures at home to have the borders closed. The result is a confused policy which only makes matters worse.

The authorities refuse to register migrants. A decree issued in July requires foreign workers to learn both Russian language and history, but its only effect is to drive immigration further underground.

And demands for the construction of new places of worship are routinely turned down; Moscow's oldest mosque on Bolshaya Tatarskaya street remains the only key praying location for a community of millions. The frequent eruption of racial violence is, therefore, utterly predictable.

But not everything is gloomy. There is a growing number of inter-ethnic marriages. There is also a growing number of non-governmental groups dedicated to fighting for the rights of migrants.

And there is the salutary example of Mr Ali Polosin, a former Orthodox priest and politician who converted to Islam and is now arguing for peaceful coexistence.

Still, Moscow's streets belong to black-clad hooligans who, as of this week, are shouting "Russia for Russians" or "White Power", while the country's politicians look the other way.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


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