Understanding the specifics of Russian xenophobia

23 october 2013

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D. (History), is assistant professor at the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities.

Resume: Migration policies and xenophobia in Russia are at the forefront of political discussion in the wake of the riots in Biryulyovo.

Riots in Moscow's West Biryulyovo have once again raised the issue of inter-ethnic relations in modern Russia and drawn the attention of mass media. The discussions being held on the causes and consequences speak loudly about the lack of adequate understanding of the Russian national issue.

The opposition between natives and newcomers has come into sharp focus. Here, an explicit emphasis is made on ethnic collective responsibility for a crime or offense committed by a single person. Today, the word “diaspora” has become widely used. People have begun to speak about migration together with other Russian domestic and foreign policy issues. Such assessments are not just flawed: They lead to incorrect management and policy decisions.

This or that ethnic group is often presented as a single, monolithic structure—a kind of state within a state. However, such an approach has nothing to do with the reality. This is explained by the virtual nature of such “unity.”

Those Azerbaijanis, who came into sharp focus because of the riots in Biryulyovo, at the very least, may be citizens of three countries (Azerbaijan, Russia or Georgia, coming from the Kvemo Kartli region) and represent two different Muslim denominations (Sunni and Shia). As for the Dagestan Azerbaijanis, representing the sixth largest group in the Northern Caucasus, they may be called more “natives” than some of the capital's residents of the second and third generation, who shout the slogan “Russia is for Russians, Moscow is for Moscow residents.”

The same applies to some of the Armenians of the Don, Kubani and Stavropol, whose ancestors had settled in this region in the 18th century. By the way, many of them do not speak Armenian, and Russian is as native a language for them as it is for Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk residents.

The representatives of these “diasporas” also have a varied social status. Such Russian businessmen as Vagit Alekperov, Alisher Usmanov and Ruben Vardanyan cannot be compared with traders in the markets and shops, or small businessmen. It is something absurd to believe that there are representatives of the various diasporas in public organizations representing the Azerbaijanis, Georgians or Uzbeks. Many reputable people belong to these groups, but there are no legal, institutional or political mechanisms, nor financial resources, to control the representatives of “their” groups.

Often, a diaspora has several public organizations competing with each other. However, they are not responsible for the crimes of some citizens (which, moreover, may have various passports/citizenships). It would be extremely dangerous to replace the principle of individual responsibility with the principle of collective guilt. This would provoke a nationalist mobilization on a “defensive basis” and demonstrate the inability of the state to regulate issues that are supposed to be resolved (today this is the fight against crime and corruption).

In contrast to the United States or the European Union (France for example, where they experienced strong nationalist-populist sentiments for many years), in our country, external and internal migrations are of paramount importance. This is associated with the movement throughout the country of representatives of different ethnic groups, religions and regions, who have different historical experiences (sometimes associated with higher costs) of joining Russia, but who are now citizens of the same country.

Yet the biggest problem is that the residents of Moscow and other major Russian cities are indifferent toward the fundamental differences between the Chechens and Dagestanis, holders of passports of the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan, or those with Uzbek passports, who came into the country for temporary jobs. The continuation of this line of thinking is dangerous, because it can give birth to anti-Russian sentiments in the North Caucasus and the Volga region, as well as to separatist feelings. This could lead to a de facto and even de jure apartheid, which would put an end to the country's integrity.

Any attempts to impose a visa barrier on migrants from the South Caucasus and Central Asia would finally put an end to the Eurasian Union and integration projects (including the military-political CSTO projects), as well as strengthen anti-Russian forces in these countries. It should not be forgotten that, to this day, many Russians live in these countries (Kazakhstan has more than 3,000,000 Russians, there are more than 1,000,000 in Uzbekistan, and, in Azerbaijan, there are about 120,000).

As a result, all these people will become hostages in the struggle for the purity of blood. At the same time, geopolitical threats such as the “export of Afghanistan” will not be stopped by visa barriers.

If the growing xenophobia in Russia is not opposed by a national political strategy that would include the regulation of the two different migrations (internal and external) and widespread education, and even, I dare say, advocating a united Russian political identity and integration projects in various fields and areas, then the country will suffer serious damage to both its domestic and foreign policies.

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