Posted on Sun, Dec. 31, 2006

Nationalistic Russians take aim at migrants
By Alex Rodriguez
Chicago Tribune

REUTOV, Russia - 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.

``They were humiliating us, and I don't know why,'' said Zoya
Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia's restive Chechnya province who
sells cabbage at the market. ``They looked for anyone with dark hair
and dark skin. It was a circus.'' Hatred of foreigners 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 in Russia. This year, that figure has soared to 437
attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them killings.

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 economicblow 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 say foreigners take away jobs and raise crime
rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia's
disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone

Dominant idea ``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.''

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at
a quasi-governmental company in suburban Moscow and formed Mestnye,
the Russian word for ``locals.'' The group takes aim at migrants who
``violate our laws and traditions,'' Fateyev said during an interview
at a posh nightclub in downtown Moscow.

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

While Fateyev's group is just beginning to build steam, Alexander
Belov's Movement Against Illegal Immigration already is a national

Adding fuel to fire

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar
fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the
northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the
scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by
firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting
scores of Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

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. Accordingto 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.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to
nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

© 2006 and wire service sources.