Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it’s out on patrol.
On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word “Locals” stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming, “Down with migrants!”
They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens appeared to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.
Ethnic violence grows
Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about the place of foreigners in society.
In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the SOVA Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence. This year, that figure has soared to 437 attacks—47 of them murders—on non-Russians. Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia’s immigration laws, citing the need to “protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large.”
Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin’s request, the government imposed new restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals a severe economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.
In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on Caucasian and Central Asian migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that eventually could cripple the economy.
But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia’s disgruntled and poorly educated. “In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people; well-educated, politically active youth; and even by academics,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center. “It has become the dominating idea in society, and that’s a bad sign.”
Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm in suburban Moscow 18 months ago and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for “locals.” The group takes aim at migrants who “violate our laws and traditions,” Fateyev said.
His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000 strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, “Don’t buy goods from migrants—buy from Russian traders!”
“They’re just kids”
Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. “They’re just kids, too young to understand anything,” said Elena Ivshina, a Reutov trader and an ethnic Russian. “It’s very easy to impose any idea on them, to instill national hatred.”
While Fateyev’s group is just beginning to build steam, Alexander Belov’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration already is a national phenomenon.
Belov, 30, calls Russia’s problem with migrants “a disease that needs to be cured right now. I’d even say it’s a little too late.”
What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the same nationalist sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the nationalist slogan “Russia for Russians.” Fifty-two percent support restricting the number of migrants who can enter Russia.
Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia’s youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin’s push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.
Pride giving way
For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.
St. Petersburg has been the site of a string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. “The average Russian feels, ‘These people live here at my expense. I’m poor because of them.’ In this way, migrants become the enemies,” Nassor said.