Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russians’ Lack of Trust Explains Their Xenophobia and Support for Top Leaders, Moscow Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – Strikingly low levels of inter-personal trust among Russians, the result of the experiences of Soviet times, explain both their xenophobic reactions to immigrants and their high rates of support for Russian leaders because “distrust in institutions is transformed into trust in the president and prime minister,” according to a leading Moscow sociologist.

            This is just one of the insights provided by Vladimir Mukomel, the head of the migration studies section of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, during the course of an interview published this week by “Konkurent,” the business supplement to “Vostochno-Siberskaya Pravda” (

            Russian society, the scholar points out, was “not ready” for the influx of immigrants. On the one hand, it lacked “a tradition of immigration” and thus did not have its own precedents for coping.  And on the other, it displayed an extraordinarily low level of inter-personal trust” and thus has viewed immigrants as “a threat to social, political and economic stability.”

            Mukomel says that Russians need to recognize both how much they need immigrants for various jobs and how rapidly the face of immigrants is changing.  A decade ago, Central Asians formed only six percent of legal immigrants in the Russian Federation; now, they form more than 70 percent of the total.

Most Central Asian gastarbeiters are from Uzbekistan, the Moscow sociologist says, with smaller groups from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The influx from those two countries has “stabilized” because their population resources are “exhausted.” Uzbekistan with its 30 million people will be main source in the future.

Another way in which the face of the immigrant population as changed is its shift from seasonal flows in which workers come in the spring and go home in the fall to one in which almost 40 percent of the total now remain in Russia all year, returning home for visits only occasionally.

And yet a third change, Mukomel continues, is that women make up an increasing part of the flow.  A decade ago, most gastarbeiters were working-age males. Now women are coming as well. Most immigrants from Ukraine and Moldova already are female, but this trend is “increasing among people from Central Asia, in the first instance, from Kyrgyzstan.”

Precise information about these trends is difficult to obtain, the sociologist notes. “With the collapse of the USSR, the statistics system collapsed as well.”  There are problems with records at border crossings. And the movement of people generally reflects personal choices about economic betterment rather than orders from the authorities.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “the Soviet approach,” which was based on the Leninist idea that those in power could control everything, “continues to dominate the mentality of those who make decisions. This is a serious problem.”

But it is possible to collect information about them through surveys.  “Migrants are quite open,” although on sensitive issues, they may choose not to answer. The big problem is finding funding to do this kind of research as most officials are having to deal with declining budgets and see money for sociological studies as an expense they can do without.

Russia needs this expertise because it needs migrants, the sociologist says. They help make up for the increasing demographic decline of the Russians as a nation and the growing interest among Russians in pursuing higher education and the white collar jobs that such training leads to.

In addition to immigration, Russia also faces the challenge of dealing with largely uncontrolled flows of people within the country, largely east to west and north to south andto the major cities like Moscow.  But in the future, the size of this form of migration is going to be relatively small because there are so few people who have not already left. The only exception is the North Caucasus where populations continue to grow.

Asked about quotas, Mukomel responded that “quotas do not regulate anything.” At best, they “fix only the relationship between legal and illegal migrants. The lower the quotas,the more migrants will work without having the legal basis to do so. The higher the quotas, the fewer of these there will be.”

Related to this is “the paradox” that “quotas are set by the federal authorities” who often do not know the needs of businesses in the regions as the recent crisis showed. Moscow insisted that the regions reduce their quotas and said that if they didn’t, their subsidies would be cut.  “A very market-like approach,” Mukomel said.

The Moscow sociologist was also dismissive of many myths held by Russians about migrants. Many Russians believe immigrants are a burden on the country’s infrastructure. Many believe that they take jobs from Russians. And many think they are source of illness and crime. But none of these is true.

As far as promoting the integration of immigrants is concerned, Mukomel argued that Moscow has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach instead of recognizing that many migrants only want to make money and leave while others in fact do want to become citizens and remain in the Russian Federation.

“The main challenge for Russia is a flood of people with different social experiences, culture and tradition,” and that challenge is going to increase because the differences between Russia and the non-Russian countries of origin of the immigrants is “increasing” as “the process of nation building” goes on in both.

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