On Sunday October 13th, the Moscow neighborhood of West Biryulevo became the site of a large anti-migrant riot. The riot ended with four hundred people detained by police, several over-turned and torched cars, and the looting and destruction of a small shopping center. It began as a meeting of residents with police to demand action in the murder investigation of Yegor Sherbakov. Sherbakov, a twenty-five year old local resident, was stabbed to death on Thursday night while walking home with his girlfriend.
People in the neighborhood speculated that the assailant might have worked at one of the many local outdoor fruit and vegetable stands or he might have been a taxi cab driver. The one thing that everyone is sure of is that the assailant was a foreigner, one of many migrant workers, or gastarbeiters, that are now living in Russia.
This riot is the most recent in a series of incidents evincing a growing tension surrounding migration from the “near abroad,” a term used in Russian to describe the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan. It comes two months after officials in Moscow set up pre-deportation detention camps for migrant workers detained en masse after a police officer was injured by the relatives of a migrant worker while trying to make an arrest at an outdoor market. Recent sweeps for migrant workers in Sochi prompted Human Rights Watch to demand that the International Olympic Committee make a statement condemning the detention and deportation of migrant workers in an Olympic host city.
It is difficult to ascertain the real number of migrants in Russia today, but estimates vary from between five and twelve million. Most migrants are employed as unskilled laborers on construction sites, as janitors, mini-bus drivers, or operate small commercial stands selling fruits and vegetables. They are extremely vulnerable to abuse by their employers, who withhold pay or confiscate passports, and by the police, who regularly conduct “document checks” and demand bribes.
While rising food prices, unemployment, or corruption are perceived to be the chief problems facing Russia, migration is steadily becoming an increasingly salient topic of public discussion. Research carried out by the Levada Center shows that there has been a considerable increase in the number of people that view migration as the paramount social problem: while only 7% of people cited ‘influx of migrants’ as the social problem that worried them most in 2007, by 2013 that figure had gone up to 27%. Politicians and the media fuel public animosity toward migrants. Television channels regularly devote attention, in the form of hour-long specials, to horrific incidents of violence allegedly perpetrated by migrant workers. Opposition and regime politicians, who usually agree on very little, are united in their negative opinion of migrant workers. In the recent Moscow mayoral election, both Sergei Sobyanin, the incumbent pro-Kremlin mayor and Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger and opposition candidate, took an equally hard stance against migrants from the Caucasus and central Asia. Sobyanin campaigned on a promise to keep the Russian capital Russian and Navalny told people gathered at one of his neighborhood campaign rallies that migrant workers were responsible for the growing number of drug-users in Moscow.
With a rapidly aging working population and declining birth rates, Russia is facing a very serious demography crisis. As a result, migrant workers serve an increasingly important and increasingly visible role in the economy. In theory, the Russian government has recognized this. Last summer, President Putin endorsed the State Migration Policy Concept, a policy paper that described migration as a public good and recommended programs to help migrants more easily integrate into Russian society. In practice, however, Russian laws on the issue are complicated and indirectly discourage legal migration. Entry into the country for citizens of members of the Commonwealth of Independent States is relatively easy because of the visa-free regime. People from former Soviet republics can enter and leave Russia using their “internal passports,” a relic leftover from the Communist-era that controlled the internal movement of citizens. People entering the country this way have up to ninety days to register with local migration officials. Most do not register.
Since 2007, the government has generated a quota for the number of migrant workers that are allowed to be legally employed in Russia. While demand for labor is high, the quota is relatively low, and has been steadily reduced over the last four years , pushing more and more people into illegal employment and away from registration. Migrant workers are also subject to a higher income tax than Russian citizens, 30% instead of 13%, incentivizing them to agree to lower wages under the table rather than a higher taxable salary. The cumulative effect of this system is a large, undocumented, voiceless, and vulnerable population that has no access to social services or legal recourse to deal with employers. Rather than addressing these issues, the Russian government has focused on excluding migrants from working in certain sectors of the economy, like retail, and putting up further barriers to legal work in the form of exams on Russian language and history. In the meantime, the number of illegal migrant workers, as well as public discontent, is growing and tragic incidents like the murder of Sherbakov provide an opportunity for nationalistic groups to harness widespread casual racism into mass violent action.