Russia, the Economic Crisis & the Backlash

by Z*

Want to overcome the global financial crisis? Ask Russia how.

Kick out all labor immigrants. Close the Russian border. And give all jobs back to Russian natives. These are the demands of the pro-Kremlin youth movement the Young Guard (“Molodaya Gvardiya”), which is the young wing of the largest political party, United Russia. Not so coincidentally that's the party headed by Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This past weekend, the Young Guard conducted protests in several cities across Russia under the slogan “Our money — to our people.” In addition, the movement is lobbying for corresponding legislation banning migration for at least a year.

The Young Guard argues that due to the financial crisis, unemployment is on the rise. To offset job losses and increase the well being of Russians, labor immigrants must yield their jobs. However, the fear is that unemployment is also raging among immigrants who, desperate and angered by lack of money, will start robbing and killing decent citizens. Xenophobia is thus generating more support by appealing to people’s fundamental needs: physiological needs to eat, security, and employment.

It’s not hard to imagine what these protests and accusations imply for millions living in Russia who are not ethnic Russians. “We are feeding foreign workers and alien countries,” said the Young Guard in their official statement. In Russia, these inflammatory statements are sparking a growing nationalism, which dangerously borders on racism. There have been numerous reports of attacks against foreign nationals across the country. The internet teems with footage of foreigners, mainly immigrants from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, getting beaten up by racist groups. The attacks occur during daytime in public places which seems to bother very few, if anyone at all. In fact, the police are frequently criticized for the lack of equal protection.

Or worse, the police tend to criminalize foreigners. In a recent case, three policemen in Saratov confessed to the murder of an Armenian citizen Armen Gasparyan, who refused to plead guilty to larceny. Last week, the policemen beat him up, drove him to the outskirts of the city and burned alive.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s policy regarding protests against immigrants ranges from inaction to endorsement. “It’s unlikely that this youth organization could have made such decision without the Kremlin’s pointing it out,” said Alexander Belov, a leader of an anti-immigration movement. Some representatives of Putin's United Russia have already come out supporting the initiatives pushed by the Young Guard. They think that the quota for foreign workers should be substantially decreased although closing the border raised some doubts.

This initiative, the protests, and the violence stand in stark contrast to the official image of the country. For instance, today is the celebration of national unity, where all the country's groups supposedly stand as one together. Also, recently, the city government in Moscow floated the idea that the immigration quota should increase (rather than decrease) in 2009 from 300,000 international workers to about 800,ooo. There are still too many jobs to fill that ethnic Russians don't want it appears, at least for now.

However, with the financial crisis having a growing impact on Russians and the government being reluctant to disclose where its money is going, calling for people to unite against so-called "aliens" is timely. Some assume that construction firms, the primary recruiters of foreign labor, might also be behind the movement; this could be a scheme to renege on backwages as the workers are officially sent home before the companies come up with their pay.

Whatever the reasons behind this new wave of xenophobia, national pride and concern for native Russians should never jeopardize the lives of others. The protests and political program of the Young Guard can easily be used to justify unlawful attacks on foreigners who usually do the jobs that Russians seek to avoid. Such strong nationalist sentiments among the youth and politicians explain stories about ethnic minorities being denied purchases in stores and taxi rides for their color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. The government has to realize at some point that it is turning its people into a prejudiced society by excluding them from real decision making and diverting their attention to artificial dangers. Such protests add on to racial stigmatization of foreigners and ethnic minorities as criminals. Russia has already failed to convince the world that it’s an economic island of stability. Now is the time for domestic politics to somehow overcome the growing instability instead of turning to the worst outlets for these frustrating times.

*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.

(The photo is by openDemocracy via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. More photos and articles can be found on the openDemocracy website.)

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