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Russia's Ethnic Minorities Brace For 'Excesses' As Xenophobia Spikes After Crocus Attack

Central Asian migrants in Russia have been the main targets in a surge of xenophobic incidents following the terrorist attack on a concert hall outside Moscow. But the country's ethnic minorities – numbering some 30 million people – are also bracing for the worst.
Central Asian migrants in Russia have been the main targets in a surge of xenophobic incidents following the terrorist attack on a concert hall outside Moscow. But the country's ethnic minorities – numbering some 30 million people – are also bracing for the worst.

“I have a Kalmyk friend who is a doctor,” a man who lives in Elista, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia, told RFE/RL. “He told me yesterday that his granddaughter in Moscow had been stopped by security forces. After all, they can’t even tell whether a person is a Kalmyk, an Uzbek, a Tatar, or a Tajik. We are all the same to them.

“In this situation, excesses toward non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation are possible,” the man, also an ethnic Kalmyk, added.

Across Russia, citizens from ethnic minorities are growing increasingly nervous in the wake of the March 22 terrorist attack at a Moscow-area concert venue that left at least 143 people dead.

Security forces quickly apprehended 11 suspects in connection with the violence, all of them believed to be Central Asians. When the four Tajik citizens accused of being the gunmen were brought into a Moscow court, it appeared they had been abused or tortured during and after their detention. Videos posted online purported to show security officers torturing the suspects with electric shocks or by cutting off a portion of one man’s ear.

Ethnically motivated violence and other manifestations of xenophobia were soon reported across Russia. Commentators on state media freely used dehumanizing epithets for the suspects.

Many of Russia’s 30 million nonethnic-Russian citizens -- a large number of whom practice the country’s second-largest religion, Islam -- are worried. Increased attention from the police and other security agents, ethnically motivated violence from self-appointed Russian-nationalist vigilantes, hate comments on the Internet, and formal encroachments on the status of the so-called ethnic republics like Kalmykia are some of the concerns mentioned in conversations with RFE/RL.

“It would be naive to suppose your average xenophobe is going to check your birth certificate or your passport before humiliating you,” an ethnic Kazakh woman in the southern Astrakhan region said. RFE/RL has withheld the identities of the people inside Russia who were interviewed for this article out of safety concerns.

The woman added that, even before the deadly events at the Crocus City Hall, Russia was a place where “xenophobia…has long been normalized as a background phenomenon.”

The ethnic republics, many of which are on the Volga River or in the North Caucasus, are regions in which groups that are in the minority in Russia as a whole make up the majority or a large portion of the population.

WATCH: Russian authorities have charged four Tajik suspects over the deadly mass shooting on March 22. News of the arrests appears to have fueled a spike in xenophobic incidents targeting Tajiks and other migrants in Russia.

As Tajik Suspects Face Charges For Moscow Attack, Other Migrants Face Backlash In Russia
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A Bashkir woman in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, also said the rising xenophobia worried her.

“This could affect non-Russians in Russia as well,” she said. “This has always affected non-Russians – a contemptuous attitude toward Tatars, mocking Bashkirs, insulting epithets for Yakuts. We have all seen this and know it well.”

'Saying Nasty Things More Loudly'

“[The] Kremlin’s promotion of hate and xenophobia poisons ethnic Russians and puts non-Russians in danger,” the exiled opposition group Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, which unites representatives of Russia’s ethnic minorities and calls for the “decolonization of captive nations,” wrote in a March 26 social media post. The post was accompanied by a video showing young Russian men in the Moscow subway verbally harassing an ethnic Yakut woman and chanting racist slogans, including “Russia for Russians,” as passersby ignored them.

A Tatar man who lives in Ufa said that after the Crocus attack, racists in Russia had already “begun saying their nasty things more loudly.”

An ethnic Tatar in Izhevsk, capital of the Republic of Udmurtia, said there have been xenophobic incidents targeting Central Asians in his city. An Uzbek woman who runs a cigarette stand told him her customers had been complaining of police intimidating them for bribes.

“This wave has also reached us Russian citizens,” he added, “but only in a ‘light’ form. My co-workers have begun joking about terrorist ‘pigs.’”

A Nogai woman in Astrakhan said “disregard for migrants and for non-Russian Russians are directly interconnected things,” adding that she heard people who “look oriental” are being stopped and checked in Russian cities.

“What do they mean by that?” she said. “I suppose I ‘look oriental,’ but I am part of a native community of Russia, just like a huge number of people from other communities. I was born here. I’m a citizen. I speak fluent Russian. But what does that matter? Does it mean that I won’t have to be subject to innumerable humiliating checks in the subway? That I won’t be rudely turned away by landlords? That people won’t tell me to ‘go back to my country’? That I won’t hear ethnic slurs or comments about the language I’m speaking…or about my religion? Of course, it doesn’t.”

She added that she feels solidarity with the Central Asian victims of Russian xenophobia.

“I don’t distinguish myself from those people,” she said. “Actually, I don’t have a choice of whether to distinguish myself or not. My fellow countrymen don’t see any difference.”

Although President Vladimir Putin and other officials frequently laud Russia as a “multiethnic, multi-confessional federation,” minority activists have long complained that Putin has undermined federalism in the country and diminished the status of the country’s ethnic republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

Self-exiled Tatar activist Ruslan Aisin, in an essay for RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities, noted that Moscow has used similar crises in the past to further centralize power in Russia. Most notably, following the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, Putin eliminated the direct election of regional governors.

“The fight against terrorism in Russia, as a rule, is twisted into a fight against political opposition, freedom of speech, democratic processes, and the rights of the country’s ethnic communities,” he said.

“After the terrorist attack, talk of starting a campaign to liquidate the [ethnic] republics might become action,” Aisin wrote. “After all, they need a new internal enemy and a new source of all problems now that the liberal opposition has been eliminated, independent media shut down, intellectuals silenced, and young people intimidated. What remains? Ethnic communities.”

After the March 15-17 election that awarded Putin a fifth term as president, self-exiled Bashkir activist Ruslan Gabbasov told RFE/RL he thought it was possible the Kremlin would liquidate the ethnic republics this year.

“Such a step would be in keeping with the logic of the evolution of the Putin regime,” Gabbasov said, describing the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policies as “imperialist and colonial.”

A Tatar woman in Kazan said she has often felt “as if I am a foreigner because I am not Russian.”

“It seems we need to remind people that we are a multiethnic country, and we have to be tolerant of one another,” she said. “I understand where all the anger is coming from [after the Crocus attack]. But the state simply can’t be encouraging intolerance toward migrants.”

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities. RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Caucasus.Realities contributed to this report

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