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Russia needs immigrants, but can it accept them?

Russia's population is shrinking, making immigrants critical to the country's well-being. But xenophobia – highlighted by a Moscow race riot two weeks ago – is on the rise.

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Muslims attended an Eid al-Adha prayer service in St. Petersburg, Russia, Oct. 15. As millions of foreigners arrive, resentment from native Russians has grown.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

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They came on like a river pouring from two nearby metro stations, tens of thousands of mostly young, dark-skinned Muslim men, some bearded, some dressed in traditional Central Asian clothes, but most thin, haggard, clean-shaven, and wearing the tracksuits and cheap plastic jackets, with baseball caps or tuques, that make up the standard uniform of Moscow's poor migrant laborers.

The crowds, hemmed in and broken up into small streams by ranks of impassive Moscow riot police, converged on the Poklonnaya Gora mosque, a small and largely symbolic structure installed by Russian authorities almost two decades ago as part of a larger war memorial complex. It's one of just six mosques in Moscow where the city's Muslim inhabitants might mark the holiday of Eid al-Adha or, as it's called in Russia, Kurban-Bairam. Since the mosque can accommodate only a handful of worshipers at a time, most waited patiently and silently nearby, a vast sea of un-Slavic faces.

This is no longer your father's Moscow. Except for days such as Eid, when it's impossible not to notice, the change in the city's complexion has been happening almost imperceptibly for more than a decade. But now, if migrant labor were to disappear, whole sections of Moscow's economy would immediately shut down.

Yet needed as they are, the growing numbers of non-Slavic immigrants in Moscow are also resented and – by some – hated. Social pressures are growing, and without major reform of Russia's almost nonexistent immigration policies, serious unrest – potentially foreshadowed by the anti-immigrant riot a few weeks ago in Moscow – is almost certainly in the offing.

Immigrant influx

Moscow's migrants might be spotted on any day toiling at the city's hundreds of construction sites, markets, warehouses, restaurants, and municipal services. But alone, or in small groups, they tend to be invisible to the Slavic Russian majority – except for the Moscow police, who keep track of them and take advantage of their lack of documentation to extract bribes.

When they do congregate en masse, such as on Eid, it gives politicians like President Vladimir Putin an opportunity to celebrate Russia's "multinational, deep, rich spiritual heritage," and to remind people of the official distinction between Rossyanin, a Russian citizen or resident, and Russky, a person of Slavic Russian ethnicity. But such language is how the Kremlin papers over the growing demographic chasm.

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According to Konstantin Romodanovsky, head of the Federal Migration Service, there are about 1.8 million foreigners working legally in Russia, and at least 3 million who are working here illegally, mostly in centers like Moscow. Some experts estimate vastly higher numbers of illegal immigrants.

Driven from their former Soviet Central Asian homelands or Russia's own insurrection-plagued Northern Caucasus by extreme poverty, unemployment, war, and political oppression, the migrants pass through Russia's virtually unregulated southeastern borders, striving to reach the relative prosperity of Moscow and a few other bustling centers. Putin-era Moscow, fueled by an oil boom that's only now petering out, offers plenty of low-end job opportunities that are at least slightly better than those most of these people left behind.

Though the Russian state has made few efforts to integrate the newcomers, protect their human rights, or prepare the local population for the unprecedented influx of outsiders, there's little doubt that they are needed here. The country's aging population, compounded by a collapse in birthrates during the 1990s, has put Russia into a demographic crisis that could strain its industry, agriculture, and armed forces. In the next decade, demographic experts expect Russia's native labor force to shrink by more than 12 million, or around 15 percent.

"The number of new workers coming into the labor force is about half the number who are leaving," says Boris Denisov, a demographer at Moscow State University.

"This was known long ago. It's absolutely not a surprise.... To cope with this demographic squeeze, the Russian government definitely relies on migrant labor to fill the gap, and not on advances in technology or rising labor productivity, such as the strategy being pursued in other demographically hit places like Japan," he adds.

There is little competition for the jobs migrants take. Overwhelmingly, it's work the local Russians don't want, although that might change now that Russia's economic growth is slowing down and, some economists say, headed for stagnation.

But tensions build up in suburban neighborhoods where migrants congregate and work; they often create parallel communities of their own and inevitably come into friction with locals. Criminal organizations from their own homelands travel with them and take root in the new Moscow populations.

"Migrants tend to live in very hard conditions, often up to 40 people in one apartment, and they don't follow the rules of Moscow life," says Leonid Gusev, an expert with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "The concentrations of them in Moscow are getting so high that the local population cannot digest it. There are no special programs in Russia to help them integrate into society. The situation is becoming so serious that nobody knows what to do next."

The Biryulyovo riot

Workers from Russia's own mainly Muslim territories, primarily the Northern Caucasus, are Russian citizens and not counted as migrants by police. But Alexander Belov, head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration – one of the more "moderate" of Russia's growing number of nationalist groups – says there is effectively no difference, and they all should leave.

"I don't separate legal migrants from illegal ones," Mr. Belov says. "Whether they have documents, jobs, and a place to live or not, they are all people of a different culture and aliens to Russian life. They come here, establish their own orders, live according to their own rules, and protect themselves regardless of local laws and public customs.

"Average Muscovites are unable to resist the power of these ethnic clans, and as a result the fears of ordinary Russians are developing into hatred," he says.

This year, ironically just one day before Eid, social tensions boiled over in the grim Moscow industrial district of Biryulyovo, where a Slavic Russian man was stabbed to death allegedly in a quarrel with a migrant from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Biryulyovo is a working-class neighborhood and part of Mr. Putin's political base: 64 percent, a much bigger-than-average majority, voted for the Kremlin's anointed mayoral candidate Sergei Sobyanin in September.

But within hours it was engulfed in street unrest by thousands of residents, some of whom shouted racist and anti-Kremlin slogans and clashed violently with police. The riot quickly focused on a vegetable warehouse known to employ hundreds of illegal migrants and a local shopping center where many others worked.

"I saw the crowd surging down the street, and there were overturned cars and garbage bins already placed as barricades on the streets," says Oleg Adamovich, a journalist with the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, who witnessed the riot.

"There were trucks with police on the side streets, but at first they just stood there and watched. There were women, children, and old people among the crowds, but there were also groups who were robust young men who were clearly skinheads and soccer fans. They were organized, and they were drunk."

Only when the mob reached the vegetable warehouse, and activists started scaling the fence with the intention of beating the migrant workers cowering inside, did police intervene, Mr. Adamovich says.

"Buses with riot police arrived and blocked the street," he says. "After about a half an hour they started dispersing the crowd."

Most of the nearly 400 detained rioters were quickly released, and about 70 of them were handed light fines. Only two were charged with "hooliganism," a charge that carries a potential prison sentence.

A bit of theater

But in the days that followed, police rounded up more than 1,000 alleged illegal immigrants in the vegetable warehouse and other Moscow locations. Mayor Sobyanin subsequently ordered police to stage regular raids every Friday on apartments and other places where migrants might congregate, and ensure that the results of such raids are made known to the public.

But most experts regard such crackdowns as an empty response, a bit of theater to convince the public that something is being done.

"These are very deep problems, rooted in profound social inequalities, but our authorities' main concern is to channel public anger away from the government and direct it at migrants," says Nikolai Svanidze, chair of the interethnic affairs commission in the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-sponsored assembly of civil society groups. "These actions will only aggravate the problems in the long run."

The course of the Biryulyovo upheaval and similar events that have occurred in other Russian centers make it clear that ethnic tensions are seething beneath the social surface in Moscow, and Russian authorities haven't much idea what to do about it.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that migrant labor is big business for Russian oligarchs and state companies, and is the source of lucrative bribes and kickbacks to officials and police who enable the flow of migrants into Moscow and protect the businesses who exploit them.

"We have legislation to cover this, and there are a certain number of legally registered temporary workers in Russia," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

"But despite that, the overwhelming majority of these come illegally, because it's in the interests of employers to keep them helpless and dependent, and it's very much to the profit of officialdom and police to keep things this way. It's all fueled by corruption."

'More outbursts will be coming'

One longstanding Kremlin response to the basic problem of Russia's shrinking population, which has enjoyed some success, has been to launch programs to encourage Russian women to have more children, to combat drinking and smoking, and to promote physical fitness.

"There has been improvement in population indicators over the past decade, including reduced mortality and rising fertility. These results are real," says Mr. Denisov, the demographer. But he adds that the improvement is not enough to head off the coming huge slump in the native labor force, and the jury is still out on how it will affect Russia's long-term demographic crisis.

Mr. Gontmakher, the economist, says that mass migration into Russia from its mainly Muslim neighbors is a fact that's here to stay, but that the current authorities seem incapable of framing sensible immigration policies or implementing programs that might reduce social tensions and help migrant workers integrate into the Russian community.

"Maybe if we had a new political situation here, these problems could be addressed," he says. "But under our present regime, where so many officials have a finger in the cash flow from illegal labor, we can already see that nothing is going to change. That means we should brace ourselves for more social outbursts, because they will be coming."


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