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Analysis & Opinion
26.09.11 Resident Alien
By Svetlana Kononova

Ethnic tension in Russia remains a serious problem, if a recent poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) is anything to go by. It found that 76 percent of Muscovites and 66 percent of residents of the Central Federal District believe that the authorities should limit the number of non-Russians who can enter their districts. Most Muscovites also think that the relationship between people of different nationalities in the Russian capital is bad, and a third said they have negative feelings toward newcomers. But despite the hard feelings, experts say dramatic growth in the number of ethnic conflicts is unlikely.

“Moscow is now the epicenter of migration in Russia. On the one hand, it is a very attractive destination for migrants as a place where it is possible to earn much more than at home. But on the other hand, it is absolutely unattractive from the point of view of interethnic relations. The poll data may be explained by xenophobia – a primitive fear, like when animals protect their territory from strangers,” said Ekaterina Kozhevina, a spokesperson at FOM. “Xenophobia doesn’t depend on income levels. Even the social group that leads the most modern lifestyle in Russia can fear for its comfort when ‘strangers intrude.’ The only ways to fight xenophobia are a humanities education and cultural attitudes encouraging tolerance.”

Besides Muscovites, young men aged 18 to 34 as well as residents of the North Caucasus and Southern Federal Districts had the most negative attitudes toward other nationalities. The most tolerant groups polled were women aged 55 to 64, residents of the Volga and Siberian Federal Districts, and residents of small towns and villages.

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA center, an NGO that tracks neo-nazi and xenophobic violence, also pointed out a growth in ethnic xenophobia in Russia. “All public opinion polls confirm it,” he said. He ascribes increasing xenophobic attitudes not to significant changes in people’s lives, but to the changes in their perception of the status quo. “People hear that there are ethno-political problems in the country everywhere – from ‘kitchen talk’ to presidential speeches. It draws theirs attention to the problem. But they don’t see adequate measures being taken. Actions are limited, or inadequate, or stop quickly. Therefore people start inventing solutions. The easiest way seems to be expelling ‘strangers’ or not letting them in to begin with. But there is no open discussion going on in society from which a reasonable person could come to the conclusion that this problem has no simple solution,” Verkhovsky said.

The other reason why public opinions polls show a high level of xenophobia in Russia is the legitimization of such ideas, experts noted. “Now it is possible to confess some things that couldn’t be voiced in polls in the past. And this doesn’t just concern the polls – people have started accepting ideas that were considered controversial and even shameful not long ago as normal,” Verkhovsky said.

The growth in xenophobic attitudes has already led to ethnic hate crimes. Data from SOVA shows that since the beginning of 2011, 15 people were killed and 80 injured in racist attacks, while seven have received death threats. Similar incidents were recorded in 22 regions of the country, though these statistics exclude victims of mass brawls and incidents in the North Caucasus. The hot spots in Russia are Moscow and St. Petersburg along with their surrounding regions, Vologda, Irkutsk, the Kaliningrad and Saratov regions and Bashkortostan. The main targets of violence are people from Central Asia and representatives of youth groups that neo-Nazis see as enemies. Among other victims are people from the Caucasus, non-CIS Asian countries representatives of various minority religious groups whose appearance is “non-Slavic.”

“The transformation from ‘average grassroots xenophobes,’ of which unfortunately there are plenty, to ultra-right activists often happens under the influence of subcultures (for example, football fans and people with certain music and style predilections) and much more rarely after reading a text. Criminal investigations show that the social background of the ultra-right is very diverse. This is not to say that people become ultra-right activists because of poverty,” Verkhovsky said.

Ella Levkovskaya, the manager of the “Migration Barometer in the Russian Federation” project at the New Eurasia Foundation, believes that the growth in xenophobic attitudes is unlikely to lead to a spike in large-scale ethnic conflicts. “In my opinion, the more often local residents encounter migrants, the more intolerant their attitudes become. Local conflicts in youth communities are possible, but large-scale clashes are unlikely. Taking Russia’s huge demand for migrants into account – up to ten million in the next decade – the media should work on creating a positive image of migrants,” she said.

Data from Baromig.ru shows that the most popular destinations for migrants in Russia are Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tver, Ekaterinburg and large construction sites in the Far East. As a rule, migrant labor costs less than employing Russian citizens, which leads to a negative attitude toward outsiders. The only exceptions are highly-qualified expats from the EU, the United States and other developed countries, who make more than the local residents.

Migration experts also point out that contrary to the stereotype, there are no “alien ghettos” in big Russian cities. “There are no ghettos, but there are some districts in Moscow, for example, where there are more migrants. I don’t see any problem with it. China-towns, Italian, Jewish and Black quarters also exist in the United States and Canada. It is good and bad at the same time, but it is useless and irrational to try to change it with compulsory measures,” Levkovskaya said. “The world is changing and new processes are starting globally. It’s key that Russian politicians don’t create prohibitive laws for migrants.”
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