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Russia: Public Supports Moscow's Measures Against Caucasians

The Moscow city authorities are cracking down on ethnic Chechens and other Caucasians. The crackdown is in response to the recent apartment bombings that killed more than 300 people and were widely blamed on Chechen terrorists. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that the public supports Moscow's measures -- even though the government has deemed some illegal.

Moscow, 23 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The fatal apartment bombings in Moscow in the past several weeks scared Muscovites, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov responded with strong measures. He ordered that all people who are not registered as Moscow residents should be expelled from the city.

The Russian Interior Ministry promptly declared the decree illegal. But the ministry may not be able to prevent widespread expulsions. Many Muscovites support Luzhkov's measures to close off the capital to those they see as undesirable.

Officially, the measures apply equally to all ethnic groups. Anyone not registered as a Moscow resident could be asked to leave the city. But human rights organizations say that the measures are aimed specifically at people from the Caucasus regions, especially Chechens. Since last week, ethnic Caucasians in Moscow have complained that police have been stopping them and harassing them. Some complain of violence.

One Russian daily (Nezavizimaya gazeta) printed a story of a Chechen woman who has been living legally in Moscow for the past two years to get medical treatment for her son. The woman, Zainap Saidulaeva, said that during a police check, the police took her passport and ripped up her temporary residence permit.

Saidulaeva and other Chechens stopped by the police were given one week to explain what they were doing in the capital. According to Moscow officials, those that couldn't justify their presence were deprived of their residency permits. Police say 15,000 people have had residency permits revoked in the last 10 days. Tens of thousands of others never had a residency permit at all.

The Interior Ministry said the registration system and the expulsions were illegal. According to Russian law, the registration of residency is only an administrative measure for record keeping, and does not give or take away any rights.

Residency registration has a long history in Russia. In the eighteenth century, serfs were attached to their masters by a residency permit. In this century, Stalin made residency registration a pillar of the Soviet system. The residency permit (in Russian, "propiska") made it easy to control citizens' whereabouts. It made it easy to close off whole regions for strategic purposes. It also kept hungry provincials from flocking to bigger cities for better-stocked stores. Residency in Moscow was seen as a status symbol.

The Russian Constitutional Court has ruled several times since 1996 that the registration system went against people's right to freedom of movement. Moscow and other cities sought to get around these rulings by introducing strictly cosmetic modifications to the system.

Luzhkov argues that Moscow must limit the number of its residents, or else the city's budget would be drained on "outsiders" seeking to live in the capital. Moscow's deputy mayor, Valery Shantsev, said in a radio interview this week that non-residents belong to the criminal world. And indeed, the Moscow registration system forces non-residents to break the law. Without a resident permit, a Muscovite cannot get free medical treatment or a driver's license, or enroll a child in school.

But while the registration system may be deemed illegal, the Moscow city authorities who promote it can count on the support of most Muscovites. Long before any terrorist scares, an overwhelming majority of Moscow residents wanted to keep others out. In a poll conducted in Moscow by the All-Russian Institute of Public Opinion Studies back in 1997, 74 percent of respondents said the flow of new residents to Moscow should be limited. Many said that "non-Russians" should be kept out.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a sociologist with the Moscow-based Comparative Sociology Institute. He says that public opinion has become even more radicalized after the terrorist blasts, and Muscovites are ready to support any measures to drive out ethnic Caucasians. In his words, "Today, underlying racism is one of the few things shared by most Russians."

Kagarlitsky says the city authorities may exploit this attitude. Moscow officials, he says, might try to justify taking illegal steps against non-Russians by saying such measures have the blessing of the voters.