Staunton, July 13 – For most of the last six months, the Moscow media have talked about little else than Ukraine, thus shifting the concerns of many Russians away from the issue of immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Now, those same outlets are again focusing on immigrants as a threat.
On the one hand, this appears to be part of a general Kremlin effort to lower the political temperature about Ukraine and reduce pressure on it from the Russian population to intervene more directly. But on the other, this shift carries with it the risk that anti-immigrant attitudes will now rise again, possibly leading to new witch hunts and clashes.
In short, having decided long ago, at least during the second post-Soviet Chechen war to use ethnicity as a tool to control public opinion and generate support for the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin and his regime do not seem capable of changing their strategy even if they appear able to change the objects of hatred that they promote.
But Putin’s use of such campaigns and his ability to shift the object of attack seemingly at will carries serious risks not only for the groups that his political technologies are directing their ire at now but also for groups that have not been attacked in recent years but could be subject to attack in the future because attacks against them have worked in the past.
An example of this latest trend to shift Russian anger back on immigrants is an article by Vladislav Maltsev which appeared yesterday on the Svobodnaya Pressa portal. Its sub-title says it all: “Why migrants from Central Asia are filling the ranks of Russian extremist groups”.
After surveying a series of cases involving immigrants charged with various forms of “extremism” over the last two years, Maltsev says that “this concentration of citizens of Central Asian countries among the emissaries of Islamist movement” should not really surprise anyone given that Central Asians live in their own separate worlds in Russian cities.
He cites the June 2013 observation of FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov that current laws on immigration are not sufficient to cope with the “penetration from abroad” of “bearers of radical religious views, including emissaries of international extremist organizations and various kinds of missionaries.”
Moreover, Bortnikov said then that “the activity of this category of foreign citizens is found in practically a majority of the subjects of the [Russian] Federation.”
Mikhail Butrimov, a member of the Russian All-Peoples Union, told Maltsev that the image ordinary Russians have of Central Asian gastarbeiters is far from the truth. They are not just simple workers hoping to make money. Many of them, he said, have gone through military conflicts even worse than “the war now going on in the Donbass.”
“An enormous number” of Tajik labor migrants in Russia, he continued, “have war experience no worse than” Russians who served in Afghanistan or Chechnya and know just as well how to use “automatic weapons.”
That such things have not happened in Moscow yet, Butrimov said, is that most of the labor migrants don’t have access to guns and that those who do have guns, like the mafia in the US when it emerged, are using them in the first instance against their fellow labor migrants rather than against Russians. But that could easily change.
According to a recent study by the Center for Research on Migration and Ethnicity of the Russian Academy of Economics, Central Asian labor migrants in the Russian capital are forming closed “cities” where no outsider can know for certain what is going on. But one thing that is happening is Islamist radicalization.
Indeed, some Central Asian officials are worried about what is taking place, Bitrumov said. One Kyrgyz diplomat even asked a Russian parliamentarian, he said, “what are you doing with our migrants? They are returning home as Islamic fundamentalists!”
All this recalls, Maltsev concludes, what happened in France over the last 40 years, when Muslim immigrants arrived in Paris and seemed to settle in, only to explode in violence in 2005. Russia needs to act before it is too late by tightening visa controls over immigrants and doing everything possible to “block attempts at the ghettoization of Moscow and other cities.”