The war on migrants in Moscow is being stepped up ahead of the September 8 mayoral election – with a tent camp set up in the neighborhood of Golyanovo, where many of the 500-plus detainees are facing deportation. The situation is both unusual and, as rights advocates point out, dubious from a legal standpoint (though the RAPSI legal news agency has reported such encampments could become commonplace).
Both the elections and a recent violent episode at Moscow’s Matveyevsky Market – in which a police officer (trying to arrest a suspected sex offender) had his skull bashed in by a vendor from Dagestan (who reportedly said he’d mistook the cop for a racketeer) – appear to have convinced the authorities that it’s time to crack down on people who, in someone’s view, don’t belong.
Of course, when it comes to illegal migration, the real culprits are the people for whom hiring illegals is cheap and convenient. Let’s face it, when your workers virtually have no rights and cannot report any abuses on the job to the police, you can make a lot of money! By focusing the public outrage on the migrants themselves – and on anyone who looks different – the authorities can avoid dealing with systemic issues of corruption and labor code violations.
The authorities can also avoid dealing with the prickly topic of transplants from the North Caucasus – who are Russian citizens and cannot simply be thrown out of the capital – by bypassing all dialogue and focusing the public’s attention elsewhere. If you pay enough attention to the Russian blogosphere, you will note that Muscovites, in particular, focus their attention on people from the North Caucasus as especially dangerous, while official silence on the issue appears to be exacerbating the problem.
Many of the people originally detained and placed in the camp, for example, were Vietnamese – and their presence in the capital appears to have been conflated by immigration officials with the presence of so-called ethnic criminal gangs, both from within Russia and from the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Reasons for ethnic tension in the capital are many, and few of them are examined beyond sensationalist headlines and the like. Every once in a while, though, one is simply forced to examine them.
Earlier this year, when an acquaintance of mine was sexually harassed at a metro station by an inebriated man who identified himself as Chechen, I questioned a metro employee who witnessed the harassment about his inaction. “Look, they have a diaspora,” the man told me. “You know how many of his relatives will be after me if I intervene in this situation or call the police?”
At the time, I avoided writing about this incident or mentioning it publicly in any way – because I wasn’t sure what to say about it. I ride the Moscow metro every day, and know that creeps there come from all backgrounds – but it was pretty shocking that a metro employee would specifically point out a person from the North Caucasus as untouchable in this instance.
On the one hand, I didn’t want this incident to be co-opted by virulent nationalists. On the other hand, the metro employee had unwittingly identified one of the central issues of ethnic tension in Moscow: the idea that certain diasporas are well-organized and look after their own, while the locals are largely divided, lack community and make easy targets.
I recently related this story to a Russian ex-military guy who had worked in Chechnya – and he said that the metro employee is obviously part of the problem here. “I understand that these guys [who work in the metro] generally try to stay out of conflicts between passengers no matter who those passengers are – but justifying that with a ‘they have a diaspora’ is stupid,” he told me. “If anything, it is that [Chechen] guy’s elders who could remind him that just because a woman is, for example, riding the metro by herself late at night he has no right to get grabby with her. In that sense, diasporas can be a force for good, but only if people are willing to engage them.”
Similarly, a Chechen friend of mine who has lived in Moscow for most of his life believes that well-organized ethnic communities could be a force for good – if someone would let them.
“There are lots of criminals in Moscow and some are from the North Caucasus, that’s just a statistical fact,” he told me. “By treating some of them as though they are above the law, people become complicit in the problem of both crime and ethnic hatred – when in fact active dialogue with diaspora leaders can help ensure that criminals are not given free reign.”
Dialogue is pretty complicated, though. And it takes a long time. And it requires genuine community outreach as opposed to strong-arm initiatives. In a city as enormous as Moscow, it appears to be easier to just deport some Vietnamese folks instead.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.