Dmitri Konstantino from Moldova gestured glumly around him at the empty stalls in Moscow’s largest food market yesterday and asked: “So, where are all these Russians?”
His question is being repeated at markets across the country as an attempt to create jobs for Russians by imposing strict quotas on migrants appeared to have backfired. Two weeks after the Government introduced a law limiting non-Russians to 40 per cent of the workforce, Russia’s markets are emptying of traders as hundreds of thousands of foreigners are expelled.
Stalls run traditionally by people from Central Asia and the Caucasus are standing bare, as officials struggle to find Russians to take their places. The situation threatens to get worse from April, when the Government tightens the quota until all foreign traders are expelled by the end of the year.
Mr Konstantino, 63, has sold vegetables at the central Dorogomilova market for 15 years. He told The Times: “There won’t be any Russians coming here. They don’t want to do this work because it’s too hard. I’m up at 4 o’clock each morning to get my stall ready but they just want a nine-to-five life.” He said that he would return to Moldova if he is forced to leave later this year, adding: “What will happen to the market when we have all gone I don’t know.”
Valentina Stati, 50, a fruit-seller who is also from Moldova, said: “I feel sorry for our customers. They are all asking me what will happen when we go because they won’t be able to buy anything.” The measure was intended to create opportunities for Russian traders. Moscow city council estimates that 30,000 foreigners have been expelled from its markets so far, but admits that there is little sign of demand among Russians to replace them.
A third of stalls at the Cheryomushkinsky market in south-west Moscow are empty. The local administrator told the Moscow Times: “Not one Russian is knocking at the door.” The legislation was introduced after President Putin demanded action to protect the “native population” against “ethnic criminals” in response to growing racial tensions. His remarks followed a riot in the northern town of Kondopoga last summer in which residents drove out Chechen market traders.
The Government says that the measures will tackle illegal immigration involving an estimated ten million people. It argues that it has also made it easier for foreigners to register legally for work by providing six million permits for countries of the former Soviet Union. Human rights groups accuse the Government of pandering to xenophobia and stoking nationalism before parliamentary elections in December.
Immigration officials raid markets regularly to check the documents of darker-skinned workers.
The effects are being felt across Russia, particularly in the Far East, where thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese are reported to have packed up and gone home. Vladivostok’s central market was closed after most of its traders left and markets in Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, have suffered a similar fate.