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Russia: Moscow Markets Present Troubled Tableau Of Life Of City's Immigrants

  • Francesca Mereu

Many of the stalls in Moscow's street markets are run by immigrants from the countries of the Caucasus. These people come to the Russian capital in the hope of finding better living conditions and saving money to take back to their families at home. But often, instead of finding opportunity, Caucasian immigrants find only racism and intolerance in Russia's richest city.

Moscow, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- People in Moscow looking to sample the tastes and smells of the Caucasus and Central Asia can head straight to Tulsky market in the city's southern district. There, hundreds of stalls offer a wide range of regional specialties, from lavash, an Armenian flatbread, to fresh cheeses from Azerbaijan and Uzbek pickled vegetables. Eager to make a sale, vendors lure potential customers to their stalls with a steady patter of conversation and free samples of their wares.

"Yes, can I help you? Would you like to try the turnip salad?"

"OK, I'm just looking. Yes please, I'll take 200 grams of the turnip."

"Try it first, maybe you won't like it. But if you like turnips in general, you'll like the salad."

"200 grams, please."

"Fine."

Many of the stalls are operated by people from the Caucasus and Central Asia who have left their homeland looking for better opportunities. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the economic and political instability that followed in many former republics, the number of immigrants entering Russia skyrocketed. Having been brought up speaking Russian, and with visas relatively easy to obtain, many immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus say Russia is a natural destination for them.

One such immigrant is 27-year-old Tanya, who left her home in Uzbekistan three years ago and spends her days selling pickled vegetables at Tulsky market. Tanya says she would have preferred to have stayed in Uzbekistan. "But it is so difficult to find a job in my country," she says. "That's why I'm here."

Although she arrived in Moscow with the hope of earning enough money to return home and open a business after a year, realizing her dream has proved difficult. Between rent for her stall at the market and the steep cost of living in Moscow, she is able to save just $20 a month for her future business back home. She says: "What's good money in Uzbekistan is nothing in Moscow."

Tanya adds that all the immigrants she knows at the market are working with the hope of eventually saving enough money to go back home: "People here work in order to earn money and they want to go back home as soon as possible. You can bear any kind of difficulty if your aim is to earn money and go back home. What helps me [to bear this kind of life] is that I know that I'm here temporarily."

Forty-five-year-old Nazim Akhmedov is from Azerbaijan. He says that vendors sometimes have problems making ends meet. Accommodation in Moscow represents a major expense. Even in the most remote districts of the city, a one-room flat can cost $100. For vendors who typically earn no more than $200 a month, opportunities for saving money to take home are few and far between. Akhmedov says the situation leads many vendors to take drastic measures: "During the summer we sleep at the market, and in the winter we rent a cheap flat. I'm talking seriously. It's possible to find a place [to sleep at the market], and the following morning you are already at work."

Svetlana Gannushkina directs migration and legal issues at Russia's Memorial human rights center. She says that according to Russian immigration law, people from other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries have the right to stay in Russia for only three months -- and are not allowed to work.

"[Immigrants from CIS countries] don't have the right to work in this country, and they only can register [for temporary residence] for three months. They live as illegal people. What does it mean? It means that this person may suffer from all the problems that we have in this country. Our militia is corrupt, and this corruption affects immigrants a hundreds times more [than it does other people]. In our country, xenophobia and racism are growing at an unbelievable rate, and of course [immigrants] pay [the consequences of this as well]. If I were asked, I would not suggest that people immigrate to Russia. When our friends from the Caucasus come to Moscow for a visit, we prefer to be with them all the time, because we're afraid of someone beating them up."

Gannushkina says Moscow authorities only complicate the situation, and in many instances make it impossible for immigrants to register even for the three months allowed. Many immigrants complain that they have to go to the registration office, or UVIR, numerous times and say the officials working there often give inexact information about what documents and forms are required. As with many procedures in Russia, a trip to UVIR means many hours spent standing in line with little promise of results.

According to Russian law, foreigners who fail to register with UVIR can be charged a fine of between $50 and $1,000 or risk being thrown out of the country.

Akhmed, the vendor from Azerbaijan, says he has been living in Moscow for five years without registration. He says: "A person without registration is an easy target for the Moscow police," and adds that he has grown accustomed to paying bribes in order to avoid being expelled.

Lidia Grafova, the head of the executive committee of Russia's Forum of Migration Organizations, says that during the past decade, more than 8 million people have immigrated to Russia from other CIS states. Moscow authorities say that 1 million immigrants now live in the city, 850,000 of them illegally. More than 2 million people were detained in Moscow last year alone for not having registration papers.

Forty-two-year-old Galila Kikalia, is proud to be one of Moscow's legal immigrants. She was granted refugee status eight years ago after leaving the breakaway republic Abkhazia, where violent conflict had broken out with Georgia. A former factory employee, Kikalia now works at Tulsky market. She says life in Moscow is not always easy, but it is far better than what she left behind: "After the war began, it became impossible to live [in Abkhazia]. The situation [there] is so bad. You don't have anything there. I can't live feeling afraid all the time. People are afraid of each other. You don't know if someone's going to kill you. Here [in Moscow] it's difficult, of course, but at least I'm not scared that someone is going to kill me, and this is the most important thing. I can work and I can make my living. In a day I can earn 200, sometimes 300 or 400 rubles (roughly between $7 and $14). We work for our bread. I cannot afford many things, but at least I'm not dying. Thank God, we're not hungry here."

Ethnic conflicts throughout the CIS have fueled the immigration issue. Separatist conflicts in the Abkhaz and Ossetian regions of Georgia have resulted in the displacement of more than 200,000 people. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave has caused more than 350,000 ethnic Armenians to leave Azerbaijan. The civil war in Tajikistan, which lasted from 1992 to 1997, caused the displacement of about 900,000 people, some 200,000 of whom left the country altogether.

Ali Merzoi is a 20-year-old Azerbaijani. He came to Moscow just a few months ago when a fellow Azerbaijani offered him work at Tulsky market. He says he was excited by the offer at first but has already decided he will only stay in Moscow long enough to earn the money to return home. Merzoi says Russians treat him with contempt because he is from Azerbaijan.

Vera Malkova is a professor with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. Last year, she conducted a survey of the Moscow press and its treatment of different ethnic groups. She concluded that the local press tended to promote negative stereotypes of many ethnic groups living in the city. Many of the worst instances involved people from the Caucasus -- including Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Chechens, and Dagestanis -- who are often described as "inconvenient guests" who come to "steal the jobs" of "native Muscovites." Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has repeatedly stressed that city authorities do not welcome people "of Caucasian nationality." Many local property owners, advertising for tenants, state outright that Caucasians will not be accepted.

Gannushkina of the Memorial human rights center says the negative press coverage of people from the Caucasus is unfair and inaccurate. Far from "stealing" jobs from Muscovites, they often accept work that Muscovites themselves do not want to do: "If [immigrants] are coming to Moscow, it means that there are jobs for them here. Otherwise they wouldn't come. And if Moscow's markets are eager to employ them, it means that Muscovites don't want to do the job themselves."

Gannushkina says the apparent intolerance of the Moscow media has only added to an increase in racial hatred throughout the country. A group of some 300 soccer fans recently attacked another market in southern Moscow run primarily by natives of the North Caucasus, killing three people and injuring a dozen more. Last April, a group of skinheads staged an attack on yet another Moscow market in commemoration of Adolf Hitler's birthday.

Russia's VTsIOM public opinion center conducted a recent poll on Russians' reaction to the most recent market attack in Moscow. Thirty-four percent of the people surveyed said they did not approve of the soccer fans' behavior but that such things happen because Caucasians living in Russian cities tend to behave "like bosses." Another 12 percent said such attacks are the only way to fight the influx of people from the Caucasus. Twenty-six percent criticized the act, saying authorities should prevent these kinds of violent outbreaks from happening.

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