Amidst growing protests fueled by nationalistic sentiments among Russia’s population, the authorities should reassess their policy and create a more positive image of migrants.   

Will Russia be able to tackle the inflow of migrants? Photo: RIA Novosti

The term “nationalism” is a uniquely Western term, and when translated into Russian, is synonymous with “patriotism.” However, as recent developments in Russia show, not every statistically average Russian resident understands nationalism as loyalty and dedication to cultural traditions.

Rather, the opposite is true: The Russian form of nationalism is hostility to ethnically "other" people. The consequences of this kind of attitude are support and even empathy towards the type of unrest that arises due to ethnic differences.

This is not a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Trans-ethnic conflicts (many involving the participation of migrants) have arisen in recent years in various regions of Europe - riots in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005, disturbances in Tottenham, UK in 2011, and arson in the Swedish Kista in 2013.

How much money do migrants send from Russia? Source: United Nations. Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko

However, as is often the case, Russian realities have their unique specificity. In 2006, the murder of two local residents in Karelia who originally were from Dagestan provoked mass demonstrations. In 2010, the murder of Yegor Sviridov in Moscow, again a resident from the Caucasus, resonated widely and led to clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials during a meeting held in memory of the young man. Echoes of the events of those days, which took place on Moscow’s Manezh Square, also reverberated in other cities around Russia. In both of these cases, the assailants were members of ultra-right-wing and nationalist organizations.

In 2011, in a village in Sverdlovsk, another conflict broke out between the members of different ethnic groups, with local residents on one side and gypsy people on the other. The murder of an ethnic Chechen, Ruslan Marzhanov, in the summer of 2013 led to mass demonstrations by citizens of Saratov.

It now appears that representatives of the various nationalist organizations within Russia are confidently grasping every opportunity, rushing to direct their energies into towns and villages to support and incite protests. The members of the host society (represented by the residents of Moscow or any other city) are easily provoked, and thanks to the lightning-fast dissemination of information through social networks and blogs, it does not take a lot of time.

The origins for this uprising are usually stress, dissatisfaction with their lives, and difficult financial situations. By that time, however, a few convincing slogans are enough for sparks to fly. In Moscow, as in any large metropolis, there are regular occurrences of murders resulting from domestic violence, but not all of them end with mass disturbances and protests.

Recent protests south of the capital, in West Biryulevo, occurred in October of this year. The unrest did not culminate in a domestic showdown; however, the unrest became an active accelerator for discussions about migrants residing in the country. Virtually all the major TV channels and newspapers included this topic into their weekly summary editions and publications. However, most of the debates have been lost in the vast spaces of the Internet.

The dynamic of the international migration according to the U.N.? Source: United Nations. Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko.

In this case, particularly active bloggers did not hold back with terms describing the events in Biryulevo, provoking readers to equally caustic remarks (and the number of comments in some cases reached up to 30 or 40). Everyone was trying to find their own truth, and to find out who is to blame and what to do.

However, there must be another explanation than the one typically offered. When we look at the chronology of the recent events, then between the time of the murder and the mass riots there were several days. Therefore, we do not see here the emotional reaction of society to the event, but rather, a period of reflection of what happened.

Many media outlets have already written that, actually, conflict had been brewing for a long time, and if so, then the murder of Yegor Shcherbakov was only the catalyst. Logically, it should have provoked an escalation already in the first days after the death of the young man. The time lag between events speaks about the preparation and planning of action. Consequently, the public reaction culminating in unrest in West Biryulevo must have been somehow orchestrated.

The influx of migrants into Russia

In fact, the situation is more complex than it seems at first glance. A popular explanation that has been given during the riots is that migrants are showcasing their newfound dominance in Russia. Yet, it is specifically foreign nationals from neighboring countries (often from Central Asia) who take unattractive janitor jobs, work as cleaners, and become vendors in the markets.

This group is dependent on their earnings, because most of the money will be sent to their families and relatives. On their shoulders hangs the support of their families, and provocation or any form of conflict may end for them with deportation, and leaving their children and wives or husbands without a means of subsistence. Taking all this into account, they will strive to work hard and not to attract the attention of law enforcement, as the cost of failure is too great.

For the first generation of migrants (both in Russia and in Europe), traditionally the transition process is the most difficult. The second generation, born in a new country, adapts more quickly and feels like a part of society. When we rely on the Western experience and research findings on this issue, then a study of the American Sociological Center REW found that the percentage of second-generation migrants with higher education actually exceeds the national average of a location. Contrast that with the Russian reality: Migrants from Tajikistan, even in the second generation, will be popularly perceived by Russian society as no better than “migrants from Tajikistan.”

Although, when we talk about individuals migrating from Central Asia (according to the data of the FMS, the number of "legal immigrants" now exceeds 1.3 million), then those are the people with traditional cultural values, family values and respect for their elders. Based on their religious backgrounds, these are people for whom an act like theft or murder is sinful by nature. Would they really go against this cultural background and act the way the crowd that reads nationalist slogans and blogs on the Internet says they will? Probably not.

If we turn to the analysis of past disturbances, then often the instigators of a conflict are the natives of Chechnya or Dagestan (according to the 2010 census, "the working-age population" of them is slightly more than 2 million), citizens of the Russian Federation, who have all the rights to free movement within the territory and responsibilities to respect people of other nationalities, ethnicities and beliefs.

Domestic conflict, which is the very catalyst for a popular unrest, could very well take place within their social group. However, this kind of murder will not be interesting from the point of view of creating a newsworthy excuse and does not attract interest from the radical nationalist groups. The latter, according to unofficial data, in Russia consists of more than 40 different units.

International migration in 2013. Source: United Nations. Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko.

The Russian Federation historically has existed as a multicultural and multinational state, where there is a centuries-old tradition of living together. For example, Muslims and Catholics have lived amongst each other since the migration that began under Peter the Great. As a result, Russian society readily lends itself to the provocations of nationalists who seek to incite ethnic hatred, while appealing with slogans that are understandable for the layman like "migrants take jobs", "migrants occupy the land", etc.

However, they deliberately overlook the following: first, the economic benefit from the cheap hired labor of foreign nationals, and second, that it is often the case that the instigators of a conflict are neither immigrants nor migrants from the first generation.

To change the situation, first of all, Russian society must discontinue treating migrants negatively. The government should popularize a more positive image of migrants, emphasizing the benefits that accrue to society. If you take away from the Moscow streets all Tajik janitors, then a day later the city, like Italy’s Naples, will sink into a mountain of filth. In addition, with more relaxed attitude towards migrants, the nationalists would be less likely successful in attracting the crowds of angry residents.

“Migration, when governed fairly, can make a very important contribution to social and economic development both in the countries of origin and in the countries of destination,” said Mr. Wu Hongbo, UN Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs. “Migration broadens the opportunities available to individuals and is a crucial means of broadening access to resources and reducing poverty.”

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