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MOSCOW, Oct 23 2013 (IPS) - Growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Russia which spilled over into violent riots in Moscow earlier this month is playing into the hands of a government keen to promote the image of a popular ‘enemy’ to a discontented public, rights groups claim.
More than a thousand people took to the streets in Biryulyovo in southern Moscow on Oct. 13 following the killing of a young man, allegedly by an immigrant.
Protesters smashed cars, vandalised shops and fought running battles with police officers.
The Kremlin’s response was to arrest more than a thousand suspected illegal immigrants while politicians began preparing laws to limit immigration. Of the almost 400 people detained during the riots, the vast majority were later released without charge.
But while the measures met with general public support, rights groups said that the riots had given the authorities the chance to improve their appeal to a public which the Kremlin fears is becoming less and less acquiescent.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told IPS: “The Kremlin is trying to manipulate public opinion by using an ‘enemy’ as a means to focus discontent among the people away from itself.
“The image of ‘migrants’ is indeed a key such image which they are exploiting for this purpose.”
Anti-immigrant sentiment has strengthened in Russia in recent years, especially in its major cities, as growing numbers of migrants from former Soviet states from the Caucasus to Central Asia have arrived in search of work.
There has been very little integration of immigrants with the wider Russian community during that time and most migrants live in largely closed communities.
These communities are widely viewed as being ridden with crime and there is a popular perception that immigrant crime rates are disproportionately high.
According to data from Moscow’s prosecution service, foreigners were responsible for about one-fifth of all crimes in the city. It said that during the summer the number of crimes committed by immigrants had risen by 60 percent.
Local politicians have recently been happy to capitalise on this perception.
Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, a member of the ruling United Russia party, was elected last month on the back of a campaign which was openly anti-immigrant and this summer ordered a massive round-up and arrests of illegal immigrants in the capital.
Prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny too has spoken out against immigrant criminality following the riots.
The open xenophobia from politicians is a shift, however, in government policy. Until relatively recently, racism had been kept off the Kremlin agenda as racial tensions were seen as a potentially explosive threat to national security which should not be encouraged.
President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned of the dangers of extreme nationalism.
But the growing public dissatisfaction with the government over what it sees as rampant corruption within the state apparatus and a disregard for the problems of ordinary Russians has forced a change as part of a wider attack on target groups which the government is looking to paint as common threats.
Critics say it can then curry favour with the electorate by being seen to be dealing with these threats – indeed, footage of the Azeri suspect in the killing which prompted the riots, apparently being beaten by police as he was taken into custody, was given prominent airtime on TV.
Apart from immigrants, other minorities are being singled out as such targets. LGBT people face de facto discrimination and persecution in Russia and controversial legislation banning the promotion of homosexuality was introduced this year despite virulent protests from the international community.
A law is expected to be passed early next year which will give authorities the right to take children away from same-sex couples.
But it is not just minorities that have suffered.
The Kremlin has also moved to repress civil society groups, especially those with connections to foreign organisations. A law passed late last year forced some foreign-funded NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ – a term that is widely understood in Russia to mean spy or traitor – or face massive fines and, potentially, jail sentences.
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told local media following the riots: “The authorities have intentionally stimulated hostility against various groups.”
He added that public demands for stricter controls on immigrants – a survey carried out by the independent Levada institute recently showed 84 percent of Russians wanted a visa regime introduced for immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia – could prompt the Kremlin to bring in widespread authoritarian law and order measures.
These in turn could be used against other minority groups as the government continues to crack down on any potential opposition to its rule.
But popular discontent over immigration is unlikely to abate any time soon, especially with what experts say is the rampant corruption involved in immigrant registration and police dealing with crimes.
Locals complained after the riots that the authorities did nothing to ensure that justice was served on immigrant criminals who, they say, are often never punished for crimes.
Opposition leader Navalny wrote on his blog immediately after the riots: “The more of a nightmare the migrant ghetto creates for residents, the more law enforcement officials and local authorities can earn. People get away with committing crimes because they bribe the authorities.”
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