Rising Russian nationalism sets off ethnic tension

Moscow — When Russians celebrated the Day of National Unity last week, marchers waving imperial flags and shouting racist slogans paraded through cities across the country while ethnic minority citizens and migrants from the former Soviet Union stayed out of sight, better to avoid a beating.

Russians are growing increasingly nationalistic, according to the latest polls, and Muslims from the Caucasus and migrant workers from Central Asia are facing more and more hostility. Those groups get blamed for much of what goes wrong here, including corruption, crime and dead-end jobs.

President Vladimir Putin has tried to exploit the underlying xenophobia, casting himself as a leader defending a special country — built on Christian Orthodox tradition — from a predatory and dissolute world. At the same time, he sounds inclusive regarding the 10 percent of the population that identifies as Muslim, speaking of Russia as a tolerant and multicultural society. It’s a feat of balance that is beginning to show deep strains.

In mid-October, ethnic Russians rioted at a vegetable market in the southern Moscow neighborhood of Biryulyovo, hunting down mostly Muslim migrants from within Russia and without to attack. The unrest was set off by the killing of an ethnic Russian, but it revealed a deep sense of resentment among the young and underemployed.

On Oct. 24, Vladimir Zhir­inovsky, a populist member of the lower house of parliament and head of the Liberal Democratic Party, told the main television channel that the North Caucasus — a part of Russian territory containing Dagestan and Chechnya — should be fenced off with barbed wire. Births there of a third child should be taxed, he said, to discourage large families.

The Day of National Unity, which Putin made a holiday in 2005 to replace the annual celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, officially commemorates the victory over Poles who invaded Moscow in 1612. It was meant to inspire Russians, reminding them how they came together as a people to overcome a foreign enemy.

Instead, Nov. 4 has become a day for “Russian Marches” where the black-and-gold flag of the old Russian Empire is raised along with Orthodox banners and the occasional swastika by marchers chanting “Russia for Russians” along with anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish slogans.

The Moscow Russian March this year drew a crowd police estimated at 8,000, fewer than expected as a cold, slanting rain kept up a steady assault. Police detained about 30 people for wearing masks or carrying swastikas and other banned objects.

A poll by the independent Levada Center in October found that 66 percent supported the idea of Russia for Russians. So far, only a few lonely voices have been speaking up to counter the simmering ethnic tension, including Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets, who urged people to stay away from Russian Marches.

Last week, a wealthy businessman named Viktor Bondarenko said he was forming a new party called Russia for All to combat racism and extreme nationalism.

“When I hear Russia for Russians,” he said at a meeting with reporters, “I think of Yugoslavia.” The Serbs also thought of Yugoslavia as a Slavic, Orthodox country, he said, before it broke apart and led to genocide against Muslims and the deaths of thousands. “We must declare ourselves a secular state where all are equal.”

Exploitation of workers

Putin has avoided taking steps to stem the tide of migrant workers, who are needed to fill poorly paid construction jobs and sweep the streets. He has deflected complaints that the government subsidizes Dagestan and Chechnya — and resentful assertions by many in other parts of the country that the money pays for fancy cars and lavish lifestyles.

Levada found that 55 percent of those polled were irritated by or disliked having migrants from those regions living in their towns. And 43 percent said they felt ethnic tensions where they lived, compared with 29 percent last year.

An estimated 12 million immigrants enter Russia every year, many of them forced to pay off police who threaten them with deportation. Employers use that fear to abuse workers, according to advocates for the immigrants.

In February, Human Rights Watch published a report describing how migrant workers employed in construction for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have been exploited, forced to work long hours with few days off and often deprived of pay.

Now that their work is nearly done, they are being rounded up under orders from Alexander Tkachev, the regional governor. Some employers used that action as an opportunity to avoid paying workers.

“The governor wants to clear the region of migrants before the Olympics,” said Semyon Simonov, coordinator of Migration and Law, a Sochi organization advocating for migrants.

‘Numerous threats’

Umid Alimov, a 38-year-old Uzbek, said in an interview that he had worked for a Sochi contractor from May until September, helping to construct a 16-

story building by hand, without a crane. After getting paid a little more than $300 the first month, he said, he received no more wages from his boss, who had taken away his passport.

“I had a work permit but was illegal because I didn’t have a contract,” Alimov said.

Alimov has been working in Russia for years, supporting his wife, three children and mother in Uzbekistan. For the past three years, he has spent 28 days at home.

Sabirdzhon Yunusov, a 27-year-old Tajik, came to Sochi in search of work along with his father and brother. They got jobs building a high-rise for Olympic staff to live in during the February Games, and none had been home in 14 months.

Yunusov, who has a wife and child at home, sought Simonov’s help in getting several months of back pay despite warnings from other migrants that he could get in trouble with the police by complaining.

“Even if we’re afraid, we have no choice,” he said. “So it’s better not to be afraid.”

Last week, Simonov said Yunusov and his fellow Tajik workers had finally gotten their pay and were preparing to return to southwestern Tajikistan.

Alimov and several other Uzbeks were not so fortunate. They did get their passports back, because someone found them near a trash bin. Prosecutors made an attempt to sort out their pay, Simonov said, but the company ownership was so tangled that they gave up. The Uzbeks grew frightened.

“They got numerous threats,” he said. “They went home without being paid.”

When his money runs out, Yunusov said, he’ll have to return to Russia, which is hosting the World Cup soccer championship in 2018. That means more construction and more work for migrants. The flow of workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia is unlikely to end any time soon.