Staunton, September 2 – Political campaigns across the Russian Federation are taking on an extremely dangerous aspect: Responding to the rising tide of anti-migrant attitudes, many running for office are playing to these sentiments, not only legitimating “migrantophobia” but intensifying it and making violent clashes more likely.
In a 4,000-word article on the Fergananews.com portal on Saturday, Aleksey Starostin, a Yekaterinburg historian, says that public officials and journalists have only added to this dangerous development by not speaking out or even honestly discussing what is going on in relations between migrants and hos communities (fergananews.com/articles/7842 ).
Starostin uses recent events in the Urals region to make his point, noting that over the last two months there have been a series of conflicts “between migrants and local residents” including several that have resulted in injuries and death and that meetings calling for the expulsion of migrants are an increasingly frequent feature of the region’s political landscape.
According to the scholar, who has been tracking ethnic relations in the Urals region for seven years, Sverdlovsk Oblast now ranks fifth among federal subjects in terms of the number of gastarbeiters. One consequence of this is that Yekterinburg now has the third largest number of diplomatic representations in the Russian Federation – with 11 consulates general, one branch of an embassy 10 honorary consulates, and a large number of branches of foreign firms (mvs.midural.ru/inostrannye-predstavitelstva).
Moreover, the number of foreign citizens coming to Sverdlovsk is rising and rising fast: the number entering through Yekaterinburg airport in 2012 was 28 percent larger than in 2011 and 70 percent larger than in 2010. And most of these are from Central Asian countries, with Tajikistan residents forming just over a third of the total in 2012.
These immigrants, Starostin says, are concentrated in construction and trade, and they make on average only two-thirds what Russians do, although their incomes have been rising relative to that of Russians over the last five years. But despite their reputation, few commit crimes and more are victims of crime compared to the indigenous Russians.
The presence of the gastarbeiters in Sverdlovsk Oblast, however, is especially obvious because the indigenous population is declining, making the foreign workers more necessary but also a much larger share of the population than would otherwise be the case, something Starostin says is obvious “to the unaided eye.”
That in turn means that Russians and Gastarbeiters more frequently come into contact and into conflict and that, according to various polls over the last three years, “from 40 to 50 percent of the residents” of the oblast have a negative attitude toward immigrant workers even when they recognize their role in the economy.
In recent months, however, the situation has deteriorated, with more than three out of five Yekaterinburg residents now saying that gastarbeiters should be expelled, and only 13 percent saying that they should be protected because of their contributions to the economic development of the oblast.
As various studies show, Starostin continues, the media by their coverage of “ethnic crime” have promoted intentionally or not such attitudes (ethnoinfo.ru/nacionalnye-nko-v-publichnom-prostranstve/778-nacionalnaja-tema-v-smi-ekaterinburga), but however that may be, “practically all political forces have decided to use anti-migrant attitudes” to win support.
Candidates of all parties and at all levels “say one and the same thing,” he writes. “’It is necessary to struggle with illegal migrants!’” But, and this is the key thing: “no one proposes what needs to be done,” a shortcoming that makes people even angrier and more inclined to take the situation into their own hands.
Some experts, Starostin says, suggest that the current wave of migrantophobia will recede after the elections are over, but that ignores the reality that Russia finds itself in a deeper trap: it needs migrants for economic development, but its population doesn’t want them. That won’t go away on its own after election day.
“The only way out,” he says, without much apparent conviction that it will work, is to launch a careful public campaign to explain to Russians why they need migrant laborers and to non-Russian migrants how they need to behave as they become an increasingly large fraction of the population of the Russian Federation.