Russia is not unique in facing social and political problems associated with labor migration. In many countries a shortage of labor force leads to an influx of migrant workers from abroad, and because labor market deals with human beings, the inflow is not easy to regulate or keep at an economically rational minimum. Negative consequences include human trafficking, with ruthless recruiters providing to seedy employers cheap labor from poor countries, as well as a rise of anti-migrant sentiments. In recent years, such sentiments have been on the rise even in those European societies that have long valued tolerance and multiculturalism.

But in Russia the above-cited problems are aggravated by a number of specifically Russian factors. To begin with, in Russia the influx of migrants is a relatively new phenomenon. While in Europe it goes back at least several decades, in Russia it is compressed in time making it much harder for “native” residents to get adjusted to a new, ethnically mixed environment. Secondly, tolerance and multiculturalism may not be a panacea for ethnic tensions, but they still temper the negative passions. Russia does not have a history of tolerance. The Soviet Union prided itself on being a “family of nations,” but in fact the “friendship of peoples” was the effect of a police-state in which any forms of self-expression, good ones or bad ones, were brutally subdued. The policy of suppression may have thus prevented ethnic strife, but the state itself practiced ethnicity-based repressions—deporting some ethnic groups and discriminating others.

Labor migrants from abroad are only part of the problem, however. In Russia xenophobic sentiments are directed against Kyrgyz, Tajik, or Uzbek nationals who come to Russia in search of employment, but they are also extended to members of various North Caucasus ethnic groups who are in fact Russian nationals entitled to the same right of movement as any of their fellow-countrymen. The slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus” is no less popular than the demand to limit immigration from Central Asia by introducing a visa regime with those countries. Residents of North Caucasus are seen by many in Russia as culturally alien at best; it is fairly common to regard them as dangerous and hostile and not even belonging in Russia. What makes things even worse is the corrupt ties that link people with clout in North Caucasus and Moscow. Such connections provide a cover-up for dubious business interests and enable them to get away with lawless practices.

The government rhetoric and policies are focused on the problem of “illegal labor migration,” but tend to avoid its economic aspect, namely the high demand for migrant labor in Russia where the general level of unemployment is low and that in the capital city is basically zero. As for the xenophobia toward people from North Caucasus, the government seeks to play it down; the problem of “illegal migrants” is used to overshadow the fact that certain categories of Russian nationals are seen as unwelcome by their fellow countrymen.

The xenophobic sentiments are further exacerbated by a sense of frustration over lawlessness and egregious abuse of authority by the government and police authorities. To give an idea, in a last year’s poll, just 23 percent of Russians said the police effort is aimed at “ensuring public security.” One third said the police serve “the interests of the government,” and an almost equal number said the police served “their own interests.”

As outbursts of ethnic violence grow more frequent, the Russian government relies first and foremost on police measures, such as roundups, detentions, or tightened migration policy. The rhetoric of administrators of various levels increasingly caters to xenophobic sentiments which risks to incite such sentiments even further and lead to new ethnic clashes.

  • Maria Lipman