Russia: Few Options to Redress Ethnic Tensions

6 MINS READAug 7, 2013 | 10:01 GMT
Russia: Few Options to Redress Ethnic Tensions
A Russian police officer looks on as Muslims pray outside a Moscow mosque in September 2012.

Moscow has always struggled to manage Russia's minority populations, but recently the issue has garnered more attention as regional elections approach. Over the past week, Russian police detained nearly 2,000 immigrants around Moscow as part of a response to ethnic clashes throughout the country. What began with confrontations between police and Dagestanis quickly turned into widespread demonstrations directed against immigrants and other non-ethnic Russians. The ethnic unrest prompted the Federal Migration Service on Aug. 5 to propose creating a nationwide network of detention facilities that would hold foreigners awaiting deportation. Russia will continue to contend with such demographic issues as its ethnic and economic composition continues to change.

Russia's latest bout of ethnic tension began July 27, when roughly 25 individuals, most of whom were Dagestanis, attacked several Russian police officers arresting a man suspected of sexually assaulting a minor. One officer was injured in the attack.

The incident incited calls for crackdowns against not just Dagestanis but also against immigrants and all non-Russians. For example, in St. Petersburg police had to prevent some two dozen men from attacking an ethnic market, which caters to foreigners and Russian citizens that are not ethnically Russian. Moreover, nationalist websites in Russia have advocating the implementation of "pogroms" — a term commonly used to denote ethnic cleansing under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Anger also was directed against Moscow police, who allegedly cowered from the Dagestani mob that injured their fellow policeman. Public outrage led many to question how ethnic markets are allowed to operate. These markets are permitted to operate for two reasons: segregation and corruption. The government sees them as a good way to keep non-ethnic Muslims sequestered from the rest of the population, and police allegedly are bribed to turn a blind eye toward malfeasance.

Since then, Moscow has taken a hard line against immigrants in the city and in the ethnic markets. Many of them were summarily detained and placed in ad hoc tent camps — hence, the Federal Migration Service's request for formal detention facilities. But one of the many problems associated with this proposal is that there are few legal definitions on which migrants should be detained or deported. According to Russian police, the raids targeted immigrants who engage in criminal activity, though it is unclear what activities they were engaged in.

Notably, police initially focused on rounding up Muslim immigrants, not Dagestanis, who are technically Russian citizens. Detainees hailed from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and other Muslim countries. Later, police detained immigrants of other nationalities, including those from Vietnam. It is possible the police proceeded as they did because immigrants can be legally targeted in such raids. It is also possible that law enforcement officials are trying to show that the issue is broader than merely a Muslim issue. In any case, Russian authorities clearly have a dilemma in how they should deal with immigrants and non-ethnic Russians

A Few Dilemmas

Russian demography is changing. Historically the country is ethnically diverse because it abuts Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Currently Russia's population is declining; it is expected to drop nearly by 10 percent by 2030.

But the Muslim population in Russia is on the rise. Russia's indigenous Muslim population, which hails mainly from the Russian Caucasus, has risen since the fall of the Soviet Union. The country has seen a 69 percent increase in Dagestanis, a 50 percent increase in Chechens and a 100 percent increase in Ingush.

Russian Population Projections

Russian Population Projections

The Muslim immigrant population likewise is on the rise. According to official state data, some 240,000 immigrants enter Russia annually — Russia's Center for Migration Studies puts this number at more than 400,000 after accounting for illegal immigration. Federal Migration Service head Konstantin Romodanovsky has said 3 million immigrants work illegally in Russia every year.

Increased anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has accompanied these demographic changes. In July, a poll conducted by Russian Public Opinion Research Center said that 65 percent of Russians believe immigrants and immigrant-related crime top terrorism and Western influence as the biggest security threat to their country. The opinion research center also released a poll in January suggesting that 55 percent of Russians reported feelings of enmity toward other ethnicities, and 63 percent believed that Russians should have more rights than other ethnicities.

The Russian government faces several problems with tensions stemming from these demographic trends. Early in his tenure, Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited ethnic Russian xenophobia of the Muslim populations. But now that the Muslim populations have become larger and have moved from the borderlands into Russia's interior, the Kremlin is having more difficulty balancing the interests of all its constituencies. In the lead-up to the 2011 elections, Russia saw protests of more than 100,000 in the streets of Moscow calling for immigration reform and a cessation of government subsidization for the Russian Muslim republics.

Since the government can no longer afford to exploit differences or ignore divisions — the differences and divisions are now too pronounced — it must now adjust its policies for managing social sentiment. As it does so, it will encounter a few dilemmas. One dilemma involves finding a way for ethnic Russians to differentiate indigenous Muslims from immigrant Muslims. Most Russians lump any non-ethnic Russians together, so a rise in Russian nationalism really means a rise in Russian ethnic nationalism.

The Russian government has been struggling to devise a way to bring all Russian ethnicities under one national identity — much like the Soviets did under the concept of Soviet nationality. A new social and ethnic strategy was suppose to be developed by December 2012, but with no actual plan on how to counter rising Russian nationalism at a time of demographic changes, it is unclear if the Kremlin can come up with an effective policy to implement.

A second dilemma the Kremlin will encounter is the need for increased immigration when its population is in decline. As the population of ethnic Russians shrinks, there is a pressing need to augment the labor force, and immigrants are an effective way to do so. The problem for the Kremlin is that even if migrants fill low-skilled and low-paying jobs at a time when many ethnic Russians are rising to create a middle class, 53 percent of Russians do not see immigration as a solution to the country's demographic problems.

Moscow After the Elections

Russian Demographics 2013

Russian Demographics 2032

The latest eruptions of ethnic tensions — both between Russians and indigenous populations and those between Russians and immigrants — come as the country is preparing for regional and local elections in September. The most important is Moscow's mayoral race, in which acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is looking to be elected to the post rather than appointed by the Kremlin.

At the outset, the Moscow race seemed more concerned with various scandals, such as opposition figure Alexei Navalny's controversial run but now it appears to be focused on what the winner will do to address the city's growing ethnic tensions.

Sobyanin and Navalny are Russian nationalists, so they are running on similar platforms. The larger question is what can actually be done in Moscow, a city from which other Russian cities may take their cues. Over the past weekend, Sobyanin called for the closure of several ethnic markets. But because these markets help allay tensions by keeping non-ethnic Russians away from ethnic Russians, the mayor is constrained in what he realistically can do.

Sobyanin faces the same dilemmas that Putin and the rest of the Russian government face. Russia is diversifying ethnically, and the country needs more immigrants to supplement the declining ethnic population. In turn, ethnic Russians are growing more hostile. Despite symbolic efforts on behalf of the government and authorities, there are no concrete measures that can be taken that would not create even more challenges in the country either socially or economically in the short or long term. 

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