Russian police conduct raid to search for those who violate migration rules at a street market in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, August 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
On Saturday July 27, a group of plainclothes police arrived at the Matveev market in Moscow to arrest Magomed Magomedov, a Dagestani, for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. As the police detained Magomedov, a crowd gathered to protest. Fisticuffs ensued as one of Magomedov’s relatives attacked an officer, Anton Kudriashov. When the dust settled, Kudriashov’s attacker, Magomed Rasulov, had fled, allegedly after bribing another cop. Kurdiashov lay dazed with a cracked skull. Responding to the incident, an incensed President Putin captured Russians’ anger. “[Citizens tell] us it is impossible to continue tolerating this level of lawlessness… Policemen were standing there and watching as their colleague got beaten up. Why? Are they such cowards? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Most likely, their inaction is earning them money from those merchants. This is obvious and well-known to everyone.” Putin’s right to single out corruption. It’s not only at the center of the Matveev market incident but at the heart of the migration issue. The sweeps of illegal migrants are populist measures meant to divert the attention, and especially that of the Moscow electorate that will vote for mayor on September 8, from the real scourge of Russian society: corruption.
After the United States, Russia is the largest recipient of immigrants in the world. According to statistics from the Federal Migration Service (Russia’s version to the INS), there are over 10 million legal and an estimated 3 million illegal immigrants in Russia. The majority of immigrants hail from the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Moldova to serve as cheap labor for construction and the service industry. Immigrants are one of the most exploited segments of Russian society. Wages are incredibly low. According to 2010 estimates, about two-thirds of immigrants earn between $300 and $600 a month to survive in Moscow, one of the world’s most expensive cities. Some live as slaves. Most migrant wages flow out of Russia as remittances. In 2010, $18.2 billion left Russia, mostly to Central Asia, where remittances make up half and a third of the GDPs of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively. Getting legal status as a guest worker in Russia is a snaillike, expensive and corrupt process often infeasible for most labor migrants.
But immigration is only one side of the issue. Russia also has an internal migration problem, and particularly with migrants from Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. The paradox of the Matveev market incident, and others like it, is that North Caucasians are citizens of the Russian Federation. What makes them “illegal” in their own country is they live in cities in which they aren’t registered. Though Russian Constitutional Court has ruled Russia’s internal passport system, or propiska, unconstitutional five times, it still regulates citizens’ movement. Historically, the internal passport system was a way to control certain groups’ migration into cities. Citizens without registration can be denied employment, healthcare, education, the ability to open a bank account and even a drivers’ license. It is difficult for people from the North Caucasus to get registration in European Russia. The registration system gives local officials the power to deny anyone residency.
Both immigration and internal migration feed into a vast network of corruption. Migrants bribe cops to prevent getting fined or arrested for registration violations. Businesses bribe the authorities to prevent getting raided. Organized crime pay off the security forces to keep them away. Whole illegal enterprises thrive in the production of registration documents and work permits. As Mohammad Majumder, the president of the Russian Federation of Migrants, told Radio Free Europe: “CIS citizens should pay just 2,000 rubles ($60) in custom duties for a work permit. Instead, they’re really paying 20,000 to 25,000 rubles ($600–$750). Our officials are creating thousands of these intermediary firms. It’s an illegal business built on migrants.” It is also not uncommon in Russia to find 100 to 200 migrants registered to one apartment. Sometimes the police crackdown like during the present campaign. One unidentified man, for example, was recently arrested trying to register 4,500 migrants in residences “knowing that they wouldn’t live there.” Last November there was a case where the criminal charges against an owner of a Moscow supermarket were dropped, though he kept fourteen of his workers as slaves. As Kirill Rogov recently put it, “Those who fight illegal migration are the same ones who earn money from it.”
The current campaign against migrants, therefore, is no more than a flimsy Band-Aid on a far deeper wound. Over the last two weeks Russian internal security forces have endeavored to solve the “migrant problem” by cleansing Moscow’s markets of the weakest link: migrants. Mass raids followed in other cities around Russia. Secruity agents detained around 1,200 Vietnamese and 200 from Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Several hundred migrants wallowed in a makeshift tent concentration camp in Golyanovo district in northeastern Moscow for two weeks awaiting deportation. Using Moscow as an example, the Federal Migration Service plans to erect eighty-three similar camps around Russia. In St. Petersburg, Russian nationalists have taken the campaign as a green light to carry out “Russian cleansings” of markets on their own. The Golyanovo camp was closed on August 20, but migrants remain detained. The final 234 foreign nationals from Golyanovo were transferred to a migrant settlement in north of Moscow.
Mass sweeps of migrants are good populist politics. Migration, legal and illegal, is a hot-button, exploitable political issue, especially in Moscow, which serves as Russia’s giant electromagnet for cheap labor. Fifty-five percent of Muscovites think that migrants are the most important problem. Nationwide, 69 percent of Russians think that the presence of migrants is excessive. An overwhelming majority, 85 percent, want a strict visa regime with Central Asia and Transcaucasia. According to government statistics, migrants commit one out of seven murders and almost half the rapes in Moscow. It’s no surprise then, that three of the six candidates for Moscow mayor, Mikhail Degtyarev, Sergei Sobyanin and Aleksei Navalny, call for toughening restrictions and cracking down on corruption and migration. None have spoken out against the detention camps. On the campaign stump, Navalny, the current favorite in the West, recently declared, “Let’s first usher in a visa regime. Let’s first not pull them here ourselves because we profit from them, and then create a camp.” Even Sergei Mitrokhin from the liberal Yabloko party visited the camps and stated that there were no violations of human rights and that migrants lived better there than they did roaming free. Migrants beg to differ.
The current campaign against illegal migration, however, provides “low-hanging fruit” for the Kremlin favorite Sergei Sobyanin. The cleansing of thousands of migrants shows that he is a good khoziain, or boss. The crackdown shows that he has the backing of the Kremlin to rectify the migrant problem. In many ways, if Anton Kudriashov’s cracked skull didn’t happen, it would have had to be invented. As Pavel Kovalenko, the secretary of Defense, an organization fighting for migrant labor rights, told City Boom, “We have become victims of a pre-mayoral election PR campaign.”
Yet the campaign itself reveals the corruption at the heart of the issue. It’s not like the authorities only now discovered that Russia’s markets are centers of undocumented workers. As Putin himself said, police corruption is “obvious and well-known to everyone.” But Russia’s security agencies are doing what they do best: making a big show to let those “above” and the public know things are being done. It’s safer that way. Plus, the few that matter in Russia’s network of corruption win. Many thousands of migrants, who many Russians consider superfluous, lose.