BACKGROUND: Importantly, riots hit not only Biryulevo-Zapadnoe, Moscow’s industrial suburb, but echoed across the western part of the country. Saratov, Krasnodar, Omsk, Volgograd and Astrakhan as well as other smaller cities experienced a series of massive anti-immigrant demonstrations aimed predominantly at natives of the Caucasus and Central Asia. These demonstrations demanding a review of Russia’s immigration policy were often marked by racist and xenophobic slogans; and ensuing physical attacks on individuals of “non-Slavic appearance” in some instances led to violent clashes between the protesters and alleged immigrants as well as between protesters and police forces.
It is believed that millions of immigrants from the South Caucasus and Central Asia have travelled to Russian cities in search of a better life in recent years. These immigrants have taken a variety of jobs, ranging from running small businesses and working as taxi drivers to street cleanup and jobs as laborers in Russia’s thriving construction firms. Similarly, internal migration from Russia’s North Caucasus republics to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities has occurred on a large scale, stirring significant discontent among many ethnic Russians who consider Caucasians in general, and Northeast Caucasians in particular, to be violent, incapable of integration, and lacking proper “cultural behavior”.
As a whole, Caucasian and Central Asian immigrants, both legal and illegal, are often accused of stealing jobs from Russians, lowering the wages of the native population, and engaging in criminal activities, particularly drug trafficking, theft, and other crimes. Racist and anti-Muslim arguments have gone hand-in-hand with economic ones, marking a dramatic increase of neo-Nazi parties and movements that draw particularly, though not exclusively, from among soccer hooligans.
According to recent sociological surveys, around 60 percent of respondents regularly identify with the motto “Russia for Russians.” Indeed, it was precisely this slogan that some protesters chanted during the upheaval in Biryulevo-Zapadnoe. In light of the fact that around one-fifth of Russia’s population of 143 million people is comprised of members of non-Russian ethnic groups, actual support for this concept among ethnic Russians might be even higher.
IMPLICATIONS: While authorities have done little to impede the dramatically increasing appeal of racism and xenophobia in the country, they have often sought to capitalize on it. In addition, the media have usually been eager to splash incidents of violence perpetrated by Caucasians and Central Asians against ethnic Russians across their front pages. For example, the Biryulevo murderer, who is believed to be Azerbaijani immigrant Orhan Zeinalov, was brought to the Minister of Interior in an army helicopter, escorted by a large group of masked officers from the elite police force, an “honor” hardly bestowed upon any average criminal.
Day-to-day incidents of violence involving ethnic Russian victims have thus routinely been given statewide coverage by the media and authorities, such as the accidental slaying of an ethnic Russian by Dagestani mixed martial artist Rasul Mirzaev in 2012. On the contrary, cases in which the victim is a native of the Caucasus or Central Asia receive virtually no mention in the media. Similarly, authorities also refrain from making public comments, such as in the cases of Uzbek and Azerbaijani immigrants stabbed to death in Moscow in the days following the murder of the young Russian in Biryulevo. As a case in point, when a Dagestani youth lost his life while saving two teenage girls drowning in the Moscow River a few months ago, the incident received almost no coverage in the country’s mainstream media, and neither was the Dagestani given any award posthumously.
Experts both inside and outside Russia have on multiple occasions pointed to the endemic corruption of Russian police and bureaucracy as an obstacle that has prevented immigrants’ (both legal and illegal) problems from being solved. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the presence of immigrants on Russian soil has served as a constant and solid source of income for police officers and immigration authorities. Thousands of illegal immigrants, particularly from Central Asian countries, have been used as semi-slave labor by, for instance, construction companies, many of which are owned or co-owned by high-ranking members of local governments both in Moscow and in the regions.
Following the Biryulevo events, authorities have launched a wave of raids on dormitories inhabited by allegedly illegal immigrants, as well as warehouses both in Biryulevo and elsewhere, arresting hundreds of individuals in the immediate aftermath of the murder. Local residents and officials have identified the Pokrovskaya vegetable warehouse as problematic, prompting its closure in the days following the riots. While closing down the warehouse and instituting checks on the status of immigrants working or shopping there will help to mollify angry local residents and nationalists, such measures hardly offer a long-term solution. Even if the widespread immigration reforms desired by some are implemented, they do not offer a catch-all solution.
Though implementing a visa regime for immigrants from Central Asian and South Caucasian countries may stem the tide of immigration from those countries, it will have no impact on internal migration. North Caucasians, often grouped together with Central Asian and South Caucasians as “outsiders” will still be able to migrate to cities outside their native region. Though the closure of vegetable warehouses and other enterprises typically associated with immigrants will have important symbolic value and may even alleviate certain problems on the local, Biryulevo level, the societal tensions that made the riots in question possible will remain. The fact that one murder, which under different circumstances would likely have gone unnoticed outside of the neighborhood, provoked such a massive, widespread reaction proves that Biryulevo’s problems are Russia’s problems.
CONCLUSIONS: Far from an isolated incident of neighborhood crime, the Biryulevo incident is symptomatic of the increasing appeal of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in Russia’s multiethnic and multicultural society. While immigrants from the former Soviet republics of the South Caucasus and Central Asia are now foreigners in Russia, North Caucasians are not. As Russian citizens, North Caucasians present a unique challenge to those who would seek to assert a particular, exclusively Slavic, conception of Russian identity.
During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the North Caucasus will serve as Russia’s face to the world – a scenic backdrop and distraction from the complex socio-economic and political circumstances that often drive the region’s inhabitants out of the mountains and into cities like Moscow. Often treated as outsiders within their own country, North Caucasians are frequently the main target of discontent among majority ethnic Russians, and are considered particularly problematic due to their alleged predisposition to aggressive behavior, bad manners and disrespect towards the “majority population”, which can only partially be explained as a legacy of protracted armed conflicts in the North Caucasus.
The overall result is a serious identity crisis in Russia, splitting the population along regional, ethnic, racial, and religious lines. This has partially helped to draw new recruits into the ranks of radical Islamic insurgents eager to offer Salafi Islam and violent insurgency as an alternative source of identity, and many North Caucasians, particularly Dagestanis, have been recruited into jamaats after spending time in Russian cities. The Biryulevo incident and the protests that followed therefore serve as a painful reminder of the pressing need to address Russian society’s underlying tensions and divisions, a problem that already has severe repercussions for some of the country's population.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007). Megan Ouellette is a recent graduate of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic and University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.