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Reporting on Russia’s Migrants

Ethnic tensions are on the rise in Russia, having come to a head with Moscow’s worst anti-migrant riots in years in October, and continuing to smolder into November with a nationalist rally thick with xenophobic overtones.

RFE/RL reporting on migrants in Russia examines the demographic and economic roots of this highly-charged issue while revealing the human face of the story through the voices of the millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who live in Russia, mostly working in markets or doing manual labor to send remittances home. Uniquely positioned to report from Russia as well as the home countries of many of the migrants, RFE/RL provided a composite picture of the problem with a variety of views.

RFE/RL's Russian Service has video of police clashing with rioters on October 13. Angry over the fatal stabbing days earlier of a young ethnic Russian, allegedly at the hands of a man from Azerbaijan, rioters smashed shop windows and stormed a vegetable warehouse in the southern Biryulevo district of the city.

The next day, fear swept through Moscow’s migrant community after police conducted raids and arrested some 1,600 migrants. An ethnic Uzbek migrant from Tajikistan who works in the Biryulevo warehouse spoke to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service about the uneasy climate in which migrants live, including the constant fear of raids that often mean beatings at the hands of the police.

WATCH: Nationalists stage a march in Moscow

When the murder suspect, Orkhan Zeynalov, was arrested, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reported on footage showing police beating and humiliating him, conducted an exclusive interview with Zeynalov’s parents, and followed the vitriolic debate between Russians and Azeris that erupted on social networks after the arrest.

On November 4, thousands of Russian nationalists demonstrated in Moscow and other cities chanting anti-migrant slogans and displaying Nazi symbols. In an episode of “The Power Vertical” podcast that week, RFE/RL delved into the roots and consequences of Russia's “new nationalism.”

Russian Service Broadcaster Andrey Shary explains that the growing resentment towards migrants in Russia is the result of a precipitous demographic shift in Russian society resulting from immigration, especially from Central Asia. It is coupled with the fact that Russia’s youth, who participate in the demonstrations in large numbers, have no memory of Soviet internationalist ideology.

“Nationalism always existed in Russia, but in the Soviet Union it was a repressed political tendency,” said Shary. “The majority of the people taking part in these rallies were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Studies suggest that the majority of the Russian public believes migration should be curbed. Yet, Director of the Institute of Strategic Analysis at the FBK auditing and consulting company Igor Nikolaev told the Russian Service that the 10-15 million migrant workers in the country account for 5-10 percent of the country’s GDP.

“If we get rid of [migrant] workers, it will be minus 5-10 percent [in GDP]. It's a collapse," he said.

Russia -- Police officers detain alleged illegal migrants during a raid at a vegetable warehouse in the Biryulyovo-Zapadnoye district of Moscow, October 14, 2013

Russia -- Police officers detain alleged illegal migrants during a raid at a vegetable warehouse in the Biryulyovo-Zapadnoye district of Moscow, October 14, 2013

Shary explains that the situation is further complicated by the Kremlin’s use of its policy on migrants from former Soviet states as currency to barter for influence in those countries. For example, Russia and Tajikistan recently brokered a deal that would allow Tajik migrants to obtain three-year work permits in Russia instead of the one-year limit previously in place. Meanwhile, Russia has been ratcheting up incentives to join the Russian-led Customs Union and is in the final stages of concluding an agreement to extend the lease on a Russian military base in Tajikistan.

As RFE/RL’s Russian Service reporting and analysis shows, other prominent Russian politicians are increasingly seen encouraging xenophobic impulses for political gain. In a Q&A with the Russian Service, ethnologist Emil Pain described the changes in political rhetoric surrounding migrants, especially during September’s mayoral race in Moscow.

Reporting from the migrants’ point of view, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service conducted exclusive interviews with deported migrants upon their return to Kyrgyzstan, and covered protests in Osh, in the southern part of the country, organized by the mothers of migrants. The mothers demonstrated in front of the Russian Consulate to demand better treatment for their relatives working in Russia, holding placards reading, “Our fathers and grandfathers went to war for Russia!”

The Kyrgyz Service reported December 18 on the growing number of videos surfacing on the Internet apparently showing male Kyrgyz migrants physically assaulting Kyrgyz women in Russia in purported "honor beatings."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service recently visited members of the Kyrgyz diaspora in the regions of Yakutia and Krasnoyarsk

The service also dedicated three episodes of its regular TV program “Azattyk+” to the issue. The hosts interviewed representatives of the Kyrgyz government and the private sector about labor shortages at home in Kyrgyzstan, and spoke to returning or deported migrants about their experiences.

The Uzbek Service reported on recent attacks on Uzbek migrants in Russia, allegedly carried out by nationalist groups. In the wake of the attacks, Uzbek migrant youth groups called on the Uzbek government to do more to protect their citizens in Russia.

Other migrant groups have vowed their own anti-nationalist demonstrations in Russia, signaling that tensions are likely to endure.

--Emily Thompson