Thursday, October 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: North Caucasians have Higher Aspirations than Central Asians and thus Provoke Xenophobia in Muscovites, Drobizheva Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 24 – A major reason why Muscovites display greater xenophobia toward people from the North Caucasus than to those from Central Asia is that the former have higher aspirations than the latter and thus represent a direct challenge to the social status of the indigenous Russian population, according to a leading Russian ethno-sociologist.

            In a wide-ranging interview with this week, Leokadiya Drobizheva of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences and one of the most distinguished Russian students of ethnicity, provides this and other insights into the reasons behind intensifying inter-ethnic tensions in Moscow (

            She points out that it is impossible to predict where violence will break out next because there are so many possible “detonators,” but she suggests that there are some general rules that can help provide explain why an event in one place will lead to violence while a superficially similar event in another place will not.

            One such factor is the political situation, Drobizheva says. Concerning its role, she cites the observation of Talcott Parsons who argued that “if social tension exists, then any explosion is provoked most often by the authorities themselves,” either because they have done something or because they have not.

            In the case of Biryulevo, Drobizheva says, political figures and officials during the recent mayoral campaign had talked a great deal about the need “to do something” about immigrants, but the population could see that the authorities had not done anything and therefore decided to take things into its own hands.
            Drobizheva also pointed to the role of the changing ethnic mix in Moscow schools in generating inter-ethnic tensions.  She and her colleagues have studied this factor in detail, and the scholar reported that the impact of the increasing share of immigrant children in the schools on others is contradictory.
            “On the one hand,” she says, this change “is even good – people of various nationalities from their youngest years learn to deal with one another.” But “on the other hand, differences in behavior and social status – “some children are brought to school in expensive cars while others don’t even have food for lunch” – “give birth to negative attitudes about ‘the other.’”
            She said in her research, she had found that the situation in schools near markets where the percentage of non-Russians was higher is very different from that in more elite schools where there are fewer of them. “Teachers are more aggressively inclined toward students in schools where there are children of different nationalities,” even though the students themselves tend to get along.
            But in the “elite” schools, the situation is just the reverse: “The teachers are tolerant, but the students are not.”  That finding shows that there is not “a direct dependence” between ethnic mix and ethnic tensions in this sphere.
            More generally, Drobizheva continued, research shows that “the level of xenophobia is directly depends on the level of the self-realization of people.”  Those who have been able to realize their goals are less hostile to others; those who have not been, constantly compare their situation to that of others who appear to be having more success.
            That explains the difference in Russian attitudes toward people from the North Caucasus and those from Central Asia.  The Central Asians in Moscow are “as a rule lower in status than the local population and do not aspire to something more: they are ready to take any work.” As a result, “the local population understands that they are not competitors.”
            People from the North Caucasus represent a different challenge.  Many of them came to Moscow “for the good life, to open restaurants and shops and to make a career. They take more initiative, are more mobile and they struggle for their place under the sun.  But local people also want a good life” and thus the North Caucasians are direct competitors.
            That competition helps explain why Muscovites sometimes say that people from the North Caucasus act “like masters on our land.”  Many of the latter are Russian citizens, and many of them, especially the young, imagine that “they must show themselves to be masters” in order to defend themselves and get ahead.
            North Caucasians do that because of an absence of social control and the kind of “restraining mechanisms” which exist in their homelands.  “Therefore, they allow themselves to ignore accepted norms of behavior” while they are in Moscow, even if their relatives and friends would object to the same actions at home.
            Diaspora organizations, in which the Russian authorities have placed so much hope, do not work effectively and often do not get involved until after there is a problem, Drobizheva said.   Only 9-14 percent of immigrants even know about them, and consequently, the weather is set more by the mosque than by such groups given that most of these communities are multi-ethnic but Muslim.
            Not surprisingly and despite official claims to the contrary, the formation of ethnic enclaves is proceeding apace in Moscow just as it has in other cities into which migrants have flowed. And all these things generate xenophobia.  “More than 60 percent of Muscovites” say  they have experienced xenophobic attitudes.
            At present in fact, Drobizheva continued, “Moscow is one of the most intolerant cities of the country,” but this intolerance is not so great that migrants will not continue to come to take advantage of the city’s possibilities.  Only about 30 percent of the population opposes any new immigration, about the same figure that has been found for the last five years.
            Moscow’s ethnic enclaves will grow but they will also with economic development disappear, just as such neighborhoods have in other countries, largely as a result of changing housing prices and gentrification.  Re-introducing the propiska system won’t do much to help because North Caucasians as citizens of Russia “have the right to live where they want.”
            At the end of her interview, Drobizheva said she favors the new law making local officials responsible for maintaining inter-ethnic peace.  On the one hand, she said, many of these officials now profit from the uncontrolled influx of migrants. And on the other, they and the authorities more generally do not pay enough attention to public opinion.  The new law could help change that.

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