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Russia: Moscow Contrasts Own Situation With French Migrant Unrest

France has seen two weeks of intense rioting (AFP) Russia has a huge and growing number of illegal migrant workers. Human rights groups have complained that many of these migrants are routinely exploited and abused by employers and police. There are also signs of growing hostility and violence toward migrantsamong Russians. Will the Russian authorities seek to head off any threat of unrest by drawing lessons from recent events among France's immigrant community?

Moscow, 8 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian authorities have often spoken about the need for more migrant workers, pointing to the country's rapidly dwindling population. But little has been done to facilitate the legalization process of migrant workers, which remains tortuous and time-consuming.

As a result, Russia's Federal Migration Service estimates that Russia has between 5 million and 15 million illegal migrant workers.

Their illegal status often makes migrant workers defenseless victims. Corrupt police officials extort bribes from them and employers take advantage of their status to underpay them.

To Legalize Or Not?

Vyacheslav Postavnin, the head of the department overseeing labor migration at Russia's Federal Migration Service, told a press conference in Moscow on 8 November that his service is currently carrying out a pilot project aimed at legalizing migrants already working illegally in Russia. Under Russian law, such workers face deportation.

Legalizing migrant workers, Postavnin said, will enable Russia to avoid unrest similar to that experienced recently in France, where second-generation immigrants have staged riots across the country for more than 10 days.

"If we don't legalize [migrants], we push them toward marginalization and crime, we strip them of their rights," Postavnin said. "This is why, since we have such a mass of illegal migrants whose rights are limited, who are subjected -- as everybody knows -- to certain pressure from Interior Ministry agencies, they can of course be provoked by any unrest. But if we give them protection and the opportunity to work peacefully, we make them uninterested in such unrest."

French Rioting

The rioting in France has been largely limited to impoverished suburban public-housing estates that are home to many immigrants from North Africa and their French-born children. France accepted many immigrants from North Africa after they gained their independence in the 1950s and 60s.

Intense unrest was sparked by the death of two teenagers from such suburbs who were electrocuted while allegedly hiding from police in an electricity substation.

Since then, rioters have torched hundreds of cars and thrown Molotov cocktails and rocks at police. Many have said that high unemployment and police harassment are key factors in the violence.

Many in France have pinned the blame on the center-right government of former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, saying its policies contributed to the current crisis by marginalizing immigrant communities.

Russian labor-migration head Postavnin said he is confident that such riots will not erupt in Russia. He added that the Russian government is doing everything to prevent racial tensions from rising.

"The problem of migration is a lot more acute in France," Postavnin said. "In our opinion, the situation [in France] was set off by the following problems: These people were unemployed and not integrated into French society. It must be said that French society is rather conservative. In our situation, we are dealing with people [migrants] who are closer to us in terms of culture, language, history, and religion. Really, the Russian people are probably the most tolerant, although some try to accuse us of having a blossoming Russian nationalism."

NGOs Partly Blame Government

However, this opinion is strongly challenged by Russian human rights groups, which regularly accuse the government of turning a blind eye to beatings and killings of foreigners.

Dozens of foreigners are killed every year by youths described by witnesses as skinheads. But such cases are usually filed not under racial crimes, which carry stiff penalties, but under "hooliganism."

Lev Ponomarev, a prominent rights activist who heads the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights, told RFE/RL that Russia is far from being safe from riots such as the ones in France.

"They [riots] could arise in Moscow, or in other cities," Ponomarev said. "The authorities are doing everything for this to happen. They de facto excuse fascist manifestations, and now so-called patriotic parties such as Rodina (Motherland) are exploiting this topic in various ways and inciting religious and racial hatred."

There are other worrying signs.

On 4 November, ultranationalist groups marked the new People's Unity Day holiday with an anti-migrant march through central Moscow. They were calling for the end of what they described as the "occupation" of Russia by illegal migrants.