The issues of internal migration and relations between Russians and “newcomers” from the Russian southern regions have become major problems in the country. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya talks about whether the government has a strategy with regard to such issues.
In July, an acute crisis broke out in the small town of Pugachev in the Saratov region. Hundreds of people (from the town’s population of only 41,000) went out into the streets to protest the killing of a young trooper, Ruslan Marzhanov. A 16-year-old male, reportedly an ethnic Chechen, was arrested on suspicion of Marzhanov’s murder and later admitted his guilt. Three weeks later, the police launched raids of Moscow’s biggest marketplaces following an attack on a policeman by natives of Dagestan.
When they talk about the “migration problem,” Russian officials usually mean external migration. Here, everything is more or less clear. The issue is dealt with on the federal level and in the context of interstate relations. The government has leverage in the migration situation in the form of visa instruments, toughened labor legislation with regard to migrants, revised requirements for residence permits and citizenship, and so on. External migration policy is in general transparent and clear, despite the fact that for the last 13 years, the Kremlin has constantly vacillated between populist politics, playing footsie with nationalist tendencies in society, and furthering an economic agenda based on attracting a cheap labor force in order to boost economic growth and, one has to admit, avoid a demographic catastrophe. Most importantly, this policy is based on legislation and is relatively legitimate.
However, almost no one wants to talk plainly about the problem of internal migration. In this case, there is no legislation to regulate the issue. The Russian constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of movement and the freedom to choose their place of residence. As a matter of fact, registration remains the only instrument of government regulation. For instance, a representative of another region who comes to Moscow has 90 days to obtain a temporary or permanent registration permit for the capital. Otherwise, he or she will be fined. Nowadays, there is a vast market for providing registration services in Moscow. Anyone can get the necessary papers for a small sum of money. The same goes for obtaining a work license.
Officially, about 12 million people live in Moscow. The unofficial estimates are as high as 18 to 20 million. Tolerance of newcomers is decreasing. Xenophobia is growing. According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center in August 2012, 42% of Russians believe that the number of “Caucasus natives” in Russia should be limited. Forty-one percent of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed with the slogan “Russia for Russians.”
The authorities have for many years ignored these problems and have used nationalists as an “anti-Orangist force.” (A considerable number of “nationalist” and “patriotic” organizations maintain solid relations with both the Kremlin and the police and security forces.) The Kremlin has actually encouraged xenophobia by nourishing radical nationalists and allowing them to conduct “Russian marches.” However, alternate pro-Kremlin and independent “Russian marches” have also been organized recently.
According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center in August 2012, 42% of Russians believe that the number of “Caucasus natives” in Russia should be limited. Forty-one percent of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed with the slogan “Russia for Russians.”
The first warning bell sounded in December 2010, when nationalist riots broke out in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin’s walls. According to official estimates, around 5,000 people participated in these riots. Unofficially, they gathered three times as many people. The riot was sparked when fans of the Spartak Moscow football team demanded an investigation into the killing of 28-year-old football fan Yegor Sviridov, who had been shot in a fight between football fans and Caucasus natives in the north of the Russian capital. Observers of the riots were surprised by the reaction of the law enforcement groups who stood by idly throughout the event, even though the football fans demonstrated very aggressive behavior. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin appeared to sympathize with the nationalists by visiting Sviridov’s grave.
In the eyes of the part of the political elite close to conservatives and “protectionists,” nationalists are not “enemies” of the state and do not pose any political threat. As a result, interethnic problems are being solved locally in a targeted manner through changes in labor and migration legislation, which in recent years has been alternately toughened and softened. Xenophobic attitudes predominate in the law enforcement bodies, which often protect the activities of sport organizations, companies, clubs, private security companies, and fan groups that they consider ideologically compatible. In some ways, these structures are “kindred.”
The “national question” was the focus of attention during Putin’s last presidential campaign. He also addressed it in an article published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Coincidentally, the publication of this article was announced during Putin’s meeting with football fans, whom nationalistic groups see as their “striking force.” The meeting itself appeared to be a gesture of consideration and respect by the presidential candidate toward supporters of the “Russian” ideology.
In his Nezavisimaya Gazeta article, Putin tried to “hijack” some of the nationalists’ arguments and began trying to attract the nationalistic audience by deliberately confusing the issues of illegal migration and internal migration. In other words, he conflated the fight against “newcomers”—or those who are not citizens of Russia—with the fight against “newcomers” from the southern regions of Russia. Putin began his article by claiming that the multiculturalism project in Europe, which rejects the notion of integration through assimilation, had failed. The president then talked about the concept of a “polyethnic civilization” as opposed to a multicultural one (although the two, according to expert ethnologists, are one and the same), moving from the issue of the assimilation of external migrants to the issue of hundreds of ethnic groups living together in one state and those individuals who have historically inhabited the territory of Russia and thus cannot be considered migrants within the country.
In his article, Putin put forward the idea of the Russian people as a nation-in-formation. He proposed that this collective “Russian” identity be cultivated through the educational system. In this context, he suggested a project of financing “patriotic” movies (yet another subject of discussion) and another one of making a list of 100 books that should be mandatory reading. All these measures would produce the same effect as would flogging a dead horse. For some reason, the government does not want to address such fundamental problems as the social and economic crisis in the North Caucasus, which has forced people to leave their families in order to “try their luck” in the national capital. The southern regions remain the country’s primary headache, linked not only to migration but also to terrorism. Another issue that is regularly discussed but remains unsolved is corruption in the law enforcement bodies. It does not matter what laws are adopted in the country as long as these laws are not respected or are respected only when they can benefit specific interests.
One step was taken, however—or rather, an effort was made that still has not been carried through to completion. This is Putin’s highly controversial legislative initiative on the so-called “rubber apartments,” in which hundreds of migrants are registered but do not actually live. This law increases administrative responsibility and introduces criminal liability for violating the rules of migration registration. Early this year, the president asked the State Duma to adopt the bill as soon as possible. However, for the moment, the bill has only been passed on the first reading. The reason is that this legislation has faced sharp criticism from both the population and human rights activists, because it would oblige citizens to live only at their official place of residence. Furthermore, one could be sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment for violation of this legislative rule. For instance, the author of this article is a Russian citizen who is officially registered in the greater Moscow area but lives in France and so could receive a criminal sentence on these grounds. According to the federal migration service, nobody intends to apply the law like this. However, its provisions are so vague that technically, any citizen who does not live at his or her official residence may find him or herself on the ropes.
While the government is initiating crazy legislation, the population is running out of patience. In July, a real riot broke out in the town of Pugachev in the Saratov region when hundreds of people went out into the streets to protest the killing of a young trooper by ethnic Chechens. The incident was of a household nature, but the consequences of this crime acquired the strongly pronounced characteristics of an interethnic conflict. Hundreds of Pugachev residents went on the rampage in the part of town inhabited by Chechens. The police barely managed to prevent a mass fight. The most indignation resulted from the fact that the police and security forces could not fulfill their duties and guarantee order and interethnic peace in the town. It is noteworthy that people began forming vigilante groups to patrol the streets and maintain order. Common citizens were forced to take on the responsibilities of the state in order to protect their fundamental rights to life and security. The situation in Pugachev was calmed by moving a number of young Chechen people out of the town and threatening protesters with criminal charges of extremism, since nowadays, protests can only be held with the authorities’ permission.
The government does not want to address such fundamental problems as the social and economic crisis in the North Caucasus, which has forced people to leave their families in order to “try their luck” in the national capital. The southern regions remain the country’s primary headache, linked not only to migration but also to terrorism.
However, the same authorities are allowed to go on rampages and launch raids when the honor of a representative of the law enforcement bodies is assaulted. “Purges” of Moscow’s biggest marketplaces began following the July 28 attack by natives of Dagestan on a policeman trying to detain a Dagestani man suspected of raping a 15-year-old girl. All people in the marketplaces without papers and registration were detained. Soon afterward, it became known that 83 camps (which journalists have already called “concentration camps”) would be opened in the country, where illegal migrants would be held. One camp in Moscow is already in operation, and its living conditions are so bad that human rights activists are expressing their concern about possible infectious disease epidemics.
The migration policy of the Russian government is chaotic in nature, often misses the target, and badly affects law-abiding citizens. The Kremlin’s occasional alliance with “national patriots” and its unwillingness to realize the risks of the growing activity of radical nationalists may result in a further decrease in Russian society’s tolerance toward “newcomers” and an increase in aggression during interethnic conflicts. If this does not stop, the December 2010 riots in Manezhnaya Square will soon look like nothing more than a warm-up. By supporting “national patriots” while failing to solve migration problems, the Kremlin unwittingly encourages interethnic wars and, quite possibly, the country’s collapse in the long term.