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Moscow polls expose growing xenophobia in Russia

06 september 2013, 18:41
0
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. ©AFP
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. ©AFP
Bathed in the rosy dusk of late Russian summer, Alexei Navalny paced the stage as thousands of hopeful young Muscovites waved balloons and clapped at his promises to make a stand against corruption and the Kremlin's grip on political life, AFP reports.

But then came the most anticipated promise. "I will stop the illegal migration orgy!" Navalny, the charismatic opposition candidate in Sunday's Moscow mayoral polls yelled, his image projected on a giant screen behind him.

The crowd attending the election campaign rally on a recent weekend erupted with whistles and screams, in what was the biggest and longest cheer of the evening.

The Russian capital will hold its first mayoral elections in a decade on Sunday. And while in 2003, the anti-immigration card was played by one candidate who received under four percent of votes, this year it is the main issue for all six candidates.

Asked in July to list their top five concerns, 55 percent of Muscovites said "too many migrants from former Soviet republics and the North Caucasus", signalling that migration was their biggest worry, even bigger than rising prices and traffic jams.

Even banners with Sergei Mitrokhin, the candidate from the Yabloko liberal party, which has for years shunned nationalist rhetoric, declare that he is against "turning Moscow into a province of Central Asia".

Russia's migration service said last month that one million foreign citizens had been registered in Moscow in the first seven months of the year.

"Unofficial" numbers are usually "several times more", Moscow prosecutor Sergei Kudeneyev said in March.

--- 'Parents come in tears' ---

Migrant labourers from Central Asia's impoverished majority-Muslim countries Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan take up most of the menial construction jobs, work at large agriculture markets, and perform city-financed tasks like street sweeping, road works, and landscaping.

In some districts of the capital, Russians feel like they are a minority, said one municipal deputy from a neighbourhood in eastern Moscow.

"Parents come to me in tears" after finding out that there are only five Russian children in a school class of 26, the local lawmaker, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"Others are Vietnamese, Azerbaijani, Korean, Armenian, Uzbek, etc," she said. "They don't speak, read or write in Russian." Russian parents are now petitioning to have a "Slavic" school in the neighbourhood, she said.

"People are really concerned about the number of migrants, about their behaviour," said the deputy, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

"There are limits to everything, and people have reached the limit of tolerance and assimilation," she said.

Moscow authorities have recently responded to the growing discontent by raiding garment factories employing illegal migrants and even setting up a special temporary camp for them.

Officials often focus on migrants when talking about crime or drugs in the capital.

Kremlin-backed Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who is seeking re-election, recently told Vedomosti daily that "half of all crimes in the city are committed by migrants".

Moscow prosecutors have estimated the number of crimes by foreign nationals at around 10 percent of all solved crimes.

During a high-profile sweep, authorities closed several markets in Moscow after a watermelon seller from Russia's North Caucasus region of Dagestan punched a policemen in July.

A flurry of proposed bills followed, including one that would completely ban migrants from working in sales.

--- 'There are no voices of reason left' ---

Several celebrated rights activists published an open letter last month, warning that the anti-migrant rhetoric in Russian society risked sparking civil conflict.

"First they give us fake crime figures, then they manipulate them," said Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the migrant rights group The Civic Assistance Committee, referring to the authorities.

Gannushkina, who was among the letter's signatories, blamed the growing tensions largely on "propaganda" by the government in an effort to shift the blame for corruption and its own mistakes on to disenfranchised groups.

"I am deeply saddened, because there are no voices of reason left among the candidates," she told AFP.

Navalny, whose perceived nationalism and past participation in ultra-nationalist rallies have been vehemently criticised by some in the Russian opposition, last month invited several people of non-Slavic origin to a "round table".

"Muscovites see that there are a lot of people in the city who live according to different rules and cultural codes," Navalny said at the event.

He listed the main stereotypes about Muslim migrants: dancing native dances, making barbecues on the streets of Moscow and covering a neighbourhood near the capital's main mosque with a "sea of backs" during prayer on major holidays.

Zaira Abdullayeva, who belongs to the Lak ethnic group in Dagestan, said that Moscow had always been xenophobic, and never liked migrant labourers, even ethnic Russians from the provinces.

"I was denied jobs a few times, I suspect because of my ethnic origin," Abdullayeva, a Moscow-based journalist and one of the guests invited by Navalny, told AFP.

"People regularly tell me and my daughters offensive things, and I still get asked whether I can write in Russian and need a translator," she added.

"In densely populated cities, people always look for an enemy."

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