Xenophobia Towards Migrants: Realities of Contemporary Russia
Author: K. U. Belousov
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 03/23/2007
In the honest opinion of two Russian researchers, B.Bazarov and M.Efimkin, ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. This apt aphorism demonstrates much better than any other phrase the essence of the migration process which is stormily sweeping across contemporary Russia and which has not yet found an unambiguously positive evaluation in this country. An evidence for this can be found in the numerous critical publications in journals and newspapers, radio and television programmes and even in the actions taken by the government to stop the flow of immigration or at least to minimise it.
So-called radical, or to be more exact, extremist groups have not been lax and more and more often have been resorting to the type of activity which is not normally acceptable in democratic societies, and have used these means to express their hostile attitude to mass, unregulated immigration into Russian territory from other countries.
Seeing the full implications of the unfolding situation, sociologists, demographers, economists and political thinkers have for a long time been insisting on a speedy solution, inasmuch as failure to deal with the issue could incite a growth of negative tendencies such as xenophobia, nationalism, intolerance etc., although it must be said that a significant portion of the ethnic Russian population already makes no secret of its negative attitude to migrants. It is especially disturbing, that these negative perceptions are found more and more frequently amongst young people, who as a rule are tolerant towards innovations and change.
As confirmation of my position, I would like to quote some opinions heard at a series of young people’s focus groups organised by the Centre for Ethnic Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences at the request of the Moscow city authorities. The focus group method helps one to reveal young people’s desire to ‘kick out’ migrants. Thus, the ideal percentage of Muscovites and immigrants was estimated by the participants as 95% and 5% respectively. This led to the following responses: ‘for me, the fewer the better’, ‘maybe we need even less than 5%’, ‘well, let 3% run around’, ‘the government could take steps to deport all immigrants who cause problems or danger for Russian citizens, they take our jobs’, ‘In general I am negatively inclined to all migrants.
Firstly, I don’t like the over-population we have in Moscow, especially on public transport. Secondly, I’m unhappy that immigrants come here with criminal intentions’.1 We could disregard these utterances were it not for data from other research sources. Let us cite them. A May 2005 poll showed that, in response to the question ‘in what exactly do you see the negative influence of immigrants on Moscow life?’ Muscovites answered that immigrants criminalise the capital – 34 %, squeeze out Muscovites from their jobs – 16%, drive locals out of the city 12%, control food market prices – 7%, have a bad influence on morals and culture – 12% etc. Characteristically, only 53% percent of respondents bothered to answer a question concerned with the positive contribution made by immigrants (the rest struggled to answer or claimed that positive contribution did not exist). 84% were prepared to condemn the negative influence. Overall, almost two thirds of Muscovites (64%) consider that immigrants generally have a bad influence on the capital’s daily life. Only 13% of those polled think that immigrants make a positive contribution.2 Significantly, when local people were asked the question ‘in your opinion, do non-Russian nationals, living in this country, pose a threat to the safety of Russian people’, put to them by the all-Russian Centre for the Study of Social Opinion (WCIOM)3 they responded as follows. 19.6% of Russian nationals polled said that they did not see any particular danger (which is much lower than the results obtained from a representative sample of other nationality groups – 41.8%) but 57.7% said that they sensed a threat from other nationalities to a greater or lesser extent.4 Such data, in my view, should disturb us, because it testifies to a dangerous nationalistic and xenophobic mood in the country. A well-known speech given in the chambers of the Russian parliament stated,5 among other things:
…[that] in Russia, especially in the large cities, extremism has emerged, there is a growth in racially-motivated and hate crimes committed by groups, there is arise in aggression and everyday xenophobia. A serious threat is posed by radical nationalism, which divides Russians according to ethnic characteristics and obstructs the affirmation of a unified all- Russian identity. Under the influence of slogans and other factors extremists resort to violence against racial minorities, migrant workers and foreign citizens. This has led to numerous pogroms, hundreds beaten up and dozens murdered. In a manner unacceptable in a country, which made a decisive contribution to the defeat of fascism in the Second World War, we have seen the emergence of neo-fascist ideology, pro-fascist group activism, widespread distribution of fascist literature, the appearance of fascist symbols, extremist propaganda and hate mail, in many places, including the internet. The language of enmity and hate groups have appeared largely among young people but adults, most notably, politicians and the intelligentsia, are responsible for the ideology and organisation.6[
Is there a solution to this thorny question? Here are some suggestions.
· Renew federal legislation and bureaucratic norms in the sphere of migration, defend migrants’ rights, integrate migrants into Russian society, and reduce the daily risks they experience.
· Subject all existing law to professional expertise, develop and implement federal, regional and other legislative acts in the spheres of ethno-cultural and immigration politics, and take action against extremism.
· Organise the training of civil servants, especially those working in the police or legal sphere, in the field of race relations, train them to deal methodically with the emergence of racial tension groups, and teach them the specifications of working amongst a population of ethnically diverse and religious groups.
· Provide effective laws and action to prevent and punish the incitement of racial, national or religious hatred.
However, we need time to implement these undoubtedly positive measures; but sadly, time is lacking to stop this flagrant and many-headed war with extremist organisations and migrants. According to the renowned Russian criminologist and professor of sociology, Y.I.Gilinsky, in the first four months of 2006 nearly 17 people were the victims of racially-motivated crime (and this is taking only well-known or reported cases):7
1. 5 Jan. – 25-year-old Chinese citizen (a choreography student at the conservatory) beaten up.
2. 11 Jan. – 25-year-old Indian student from Petersburg medical academy beaten up.
3. 15 Jan. – unknown Egyptian citizen beaten up.
4. 25 Jan. – forestry academy student from Cameroon beaten up.
5. 30 Jan. – medical student from Uganda beaten up.
6. 5 Feb. – citizen of Mali, born 1967, murdered.
7. 19 Feb. – 23-year-old Israeli student assaulted.
8. 24 Feb. – 33-year-old undergraduate, citizen of The Ivory Coast, beaten up.
9. 2 Mar. – Lebanese student attacked.
10. 23 Mar. – 34-year-old Ghanaian citizen beaten up.
11. April – Chinese student murdered.
12. 7 Apr. – Senegalese student fatally shot.
13. 14 Apr. – Afghan citizen beaten and injured.
14. 15 Apr. – two Mongolian citizens attacked and beaten up in metro.
But, the previous year, 2005, was also filled with sad events. We can cite at least a few of them here.
26 Mar. in Nevsky prospect in St.Petersburg, unknown assailants assaulted a 40-year-old Chinese citizen, a student of the city’s conservatory.
11 Feb. in St.Petersburg a group of unknown attackers fell on two South Korean students, aged 16 and 17. One of them was stabbed 9 times with a knife and needed reanimation.
30 Jan. in St.Petersburg a group of adolescents beat up a 20-year-old Palestinian student.
7 Jan. in St.Petersburg several young people, apparently skinheads, beat up a 23-year-old Pakistani student.8
The beginning of 2007 has not been peaceful, either. On 16 Feb. in the town of Pushkin, a suburb of St. Petersburg, a group of adolescents (numbering from 10 to 15 people, according to different accounts) attacked two Uzbeks, one of whom died from multiple injuries.
I have cited only some of the cases, but in reality they are far more numerous and all of them taken together have given journalists and specialists researching the problem of nationalism just cause to name St.Petersburg the capital of xenophobia. Ella Pamfilova, chairperson of the presidential committee on civil society and human rights, expressed her attitude to the problem very aptly, saying: ‘Something unimaginable is happening in St.Petersburg. A whole series of racial murders, constant attack on foreigners on our streets, unbelievably lenient sentences for fascists, especially for those from the SHULZ organisation… it creates the impression that these fascist thugs are not afraid of anything, that they have terrorised the whole city. In my view, we have already done enough chattering and made enough noisy announcements about the need to condemn skinheads. It is time for us to take real action.’9
Although other Russian towns and cities such as Moscow, Voronezh, Rostov on Don, Krasnodar and other regions don’t lag far behind St. Petersburg, it would be a mistake to assume that xenophobia is an exclusively Russian phenomenon. Indeed, the Netherlands, one of the most tolerant European states, is swarming with racists. Let us consider the results of a 2002 poll, which without any exaggeration shook the entire civilised world and showed that ‘almost one in two young Dutch voters favours zero Muslim immigration’. Parliamentary election results counted later corresponded exactly with these polls, inasmuch as Pim Fortuyn’s far-right party which openly campaigned against the ‘Islamisation’ of Dutch society and the continuing influx of immigration,10 won second place in terms of the number of parliamentary seats. No less astonishing were the results of a poll in Austria, where 56.0% of the native population claim that their compatriots are losing jobs to migrant workers, and 91.0% demanded immediate deportation of ‘illegal migrant labour’, and 73.0% favoured immigration controls in general.11 This nation-wide mood, inflamed by the populist speeches of certain demagogic politicians, resulted in the electoral success of the ultra-right Freedom party, led by Jorg Haider, which became the second most popular party after winning 27.2% of the vote. Similar situations have occurred in other European Union countries e.g. Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain etc.
A legislative problem arises here, how can we solve the difficult situation which has unfolded? I think that one possible solution lies in the development of a new, multi-cultural politics, which should replace the outdated concepts of integration and assimilation. The advantage of multiculturalism is that it not only helps migrants adapt to local norms of everyday behaviour by rationally using new labour resources, but also re-orientates the host population towards a more tolerant attitude to foreign nationals.12 In today’s Russia, despite many complexities, the idea of multiculturalism is gaining support because it proclaims equal rights for both the native and immigrant populations by defending the fundamental right to cultural autonomy, to one’s native tongue and religious faith.13 Undoubtedly, multiculturalism may smooth out rough surfaces, although all specialists are unanimous in their verdict concerning the usefulness of this phenomenon. In conclusion, I would like to express my view that only time will tell whether multiculturalism will bring positive benefits or, on the contrary unleash a charge of negative power. We will see.
Bio: K. U. Belousov,PhD, is Head of the Sociological Laboratory in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Herzen university