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Nationalistic Russians take aim at migrants

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  • Nationalistic Russians take aim at migrants

    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.