MOSCOW -- "By day, they're waiters, street cleaners, and construction workers. Evenings and nights, they visit gyms 'for insiders,' and learn to kill."
That's the claim made in an incendiary report about Central Asian migrants that aired over the weekend on NTV, a channel owned by Russian state gas giant Gazprom. It has provoked denunciations on social media and anger over what some viewers deemed an effort to fuel ethnic tensions.
The two-minute clip, set against a hard-rock soundtrack and titled Fighters Without Borders, shows men who appear to be from Central Asia practicing martial arts, and subtitles explaining the context. In the past decade, the report states, fight clubs in Moscow have proliferated from five to 100. Half of them, it claims, have an "ethnic coloring" and allow only labor migrants from Central Asia.
Members of these clubs, according to NTV, want to raise their reputation among friends and earn big money on the fight circuit. But some use their newfound fighting skills to carry out robberies and muggings, the report alleges.
It includes no interviews with the migrants themselves or with law enforcement, and cites no sources to back its claims.
When the report was posted to Facebook on March 15, it provoked calls for NTV to be blocked for inciting racial tension, which is illegal under Russia's criminal code.
"Am I the only one who thinks NTV is spreading ethnic hatred?" one user asked.
"People, file complaints against this publication!!!" wrote another.
There was a fair share of xenophobic comments in support of the report, but many chimed in to defend the work ethic of Central Asian migrants in Russia, which by official figures number anywhere between 2.7 and 4.2 million people, predominantly from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
"Does NTV know that they sometimes work on weekends and sleep two hours at a time, because the salaries of a waiter or taxi driver are small and they send most of their money home?" one user wrote.
Of the few statistics cited in the report, one set stands out: Since the late 1990s, Moscow has seen a fourfold increase in "ethnic crimes," the report claims, and former Soviet citizens are responsible for 40,000 crimes each year. Half of the perpetrators are Central Asians, it alleges, and their organized crime groups actively recruit among members of illegal fight clubs.
Statistics on migrant crime in Russia conflict, but official sources suggest NTV's claims are misleading.
The Prosecutor-General's Office noted 41,047 crimes by foreign citizens in its report for 2017, of which 36,233 or 88.3 percent -- less than the figure cited by NTV -- were committed by citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an international organization with a largely symbolic mandate comprised of Russia and eight other former Soviet republics, including those in Central Asia. The figure for 2018 is even lower at 34,323 crimes -- meaning a drop of more than 5 percent from the previous year.
Incidents involving Central Asians tend to receive widespread coverage on Russian media, which often make unsubstantiated claims about migrant workers.
On June 16, 2018, in the opening days of the World Cup in Moscow, 28-year-old Kyrgyz citizen Chyngyz Anarbek veered off a road in the city center and plowed into a crowd on an adjacent sidewalk, injuring seven people and casting a shadow over an international sporting event that was meant to raise Russia's image abroad.
Russian media reports immediately suggested Anarbek had been under the influence of alcohol. In an interview, Anarbek said he mistook the accelerator for the brake, after having worked for 20 hours straight prior to the incident and getting only three hours of sleep.
Fighters Without Borders, however, used Anarbek's biography as proof of a dangerous trend. It claimed he now works as a chef in Moscow and in his spare time takes part in mixed-martial-arts tournaments to pay off a 500,000-ruble fine ($7,700) he received in connection with the incident.
"What will he do if his sports career doesn't work out?" the report concludes.
Despite the incendiary tone of the NTV report, which has been viewed on the channel's website almost 20,000 times, there are indications that xenophobia in Russia is on the decline.
In its January 2019 report, the Sova Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors nationalism in Russia, noted a drop in hate crimes in recent years and a modest improvement in the effectiveness of law enforcement in this sphere.