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Migrants In Russia Face Raids, Political Attacks As Pressure To Fight In Ukraine Increases

A raid against illegal migrants in Balashikha, Russia, in 2015
A raid against illegal migrants in Balashikha, Russia, in 2015

A recent Russian police raid targeting migrant workers at a top retailer's warehouse near Moscow for military recruitment could hardly have gone unnoticed.

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Wildberries, the Russian e-commerce giant that controls the facility, immediately sounded the alarm over potential late deliveries of hundreds of thousands of goods on a day known to businesses across the world as Black Friday.

The November 24 raid threatened "billions" of rubles in losses for businesses that work with Wildberries, the company said after the depot's thousands-strong workforce was effectively paralyzed on one of the busiest sales days of the year.

Indeed, amid public dissatisfaction over the direction of the war in Ukraine and with a March presidential election edging into sight, experts say a bit of publicity -- at the expense of a vast and vulnerable migrant population -- might be exactly what the Kremlin is looking for.

"This is a nervous moment for the Russian political machine, considering that there are not many things that the government can portray as a victory or success to society," said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

"The nationalistic card is always something that helps the Russian government accumulate support when nothing else is going well," he told RFE/RL, adding he expected migrants to suffer "more and more" pressure in the run-up to the vote in which incumbent Vladimir Putin is widely expected to run.

"But what will be consistent is the fact that it is becoming ever more [difficult] for migrants -- especially those with dual citizenship -- to be in Russia," said Umarov.

A man reads a leaflet promoting Russian mobilization.
A man reads a leaflet promoting Russian mobilization.

This is because Russia is pursuing a "hybrid mobilization" that targets them disproportionately to offset anger over the massive -- if still officially undisclosed -- losses suffered by Russian forces in Ukraine, the analyst argued.

Raids On Mosques, MMA Tournaments

According to Russian media reports, more than 100 people were detained in the November 24 raid on the Wildberries depot in Elektrostal, a city some 60 kilometers east of Moscow, with a number of recently naturalized Russian citizens compelled to report to military recruitment centers.

News of such raids, even when not confirmed by Russian authorities, is everywhere at the moment.

On November 18, the Latvian-based Russian exile media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe reported on a raid involving police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Prosecutor-General's Office members on a mosque in Balashikha, another Moscow satellite town.

An imam told the outlet that visitors to his mosque had been "invited to serve" in the military during the raid on November 17 but could not say how many were taken away.

The same outlet noted that two days earlier police joined forces with nationalist vigilantes in another large-scale raid on a market and a factory in the settlement of Reutov, close to Balashikha.

A video widely shared on Telegram showed balaclava-wearing men explaining their role in "jointly" apprehending migrants in Reutov.

"We're always ready to help our law-enforcement organs," boasted one of the men. "We are for a strong, honest, and fair Russia!"

In October, police in the Far Eastern Khabarovsk region effectively shut down a Mixed Martial Arts tournament when they raided a sports club and detained several migrants competing in the tournament.

Video footage appeared to show many spectators cheering the police's actions, while a voice could be heard commenting that officers were "packing up the migrants."

Russia's migrant community -- overwhelmingly Muslims from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- is no stranger to police harassment and an unyielding bureaucracy seemingly designed to catch them for something.

But the war has brought the added threat of conscription for those migrants who have received Russian passports and no shortage of attempts to persuade those that haven't to enlist in the military in exchange for citizenship.

Indeed, the drive to recruit migrants has become increasingly desperate since a series of reversals moved Putin to order a military mobilization in September 2022 -- an unpopular step the Kremlin appears wary of repeating.

Hostile Rhetoric

The steady trickle of reports of migrants being sent back to their homelands in coffins suggests plenty of Central Asians are already fighting in Russia's war in Ukraine.

Not enough, apparently, for Russian authorities, who are ramping up their threats during the traditional autumn military recruitment season and ahead of the anticipated announcement next month of a date for a presidential election.

Last month, the head of Russia's powerful Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, said migrants who obtained Russian citizenship should be stripped of it if they refuse to fight in Ukraine.

In the summer, Bastrykin had expressed a similar sentiment while claiming there had been an uptick in crimes committed by migrants.

Russian authorities have conducted raids at mosques during the latest crackdown on migrants (video grab)
Russian authorities have conducted raids at mosques during the latest crackdown on migrants (video grab)

"This is what people are saying: 'While Russians are at the front, migrants are attacking our rear,'" Bastrykin said, in quotes translated by Eurasianet.

Mikhail Matveyev, a lawmaker in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, demanded in a Telegram post in May to know why there were no "Tajik battalions" fighting for Russia in Ukraine, while "divisions of men come from Central Asia to Russia every year to receive Russian citizenship."

"There [on the front line], men of the indigenous peoples of Russia, primarily [ethnic] Russians, die for their motherland and get replaced here by hundreds of thousands of Asians," fumed Matveyev, citing data that claimed the "the Russian population grew by 45,000 Tajiks" in the first quarter of 2023.

And it is not just the war that is on their mind.

Earlier this month a Duma deputy chairman, Pyotr Tolstoi, bemoaned Russia's "passive position on migrants" and suggested a ban on migrants from some former Soviet countries working as couriers, taxi drivers, and salespeople.

He also proposed levying a tax on the remittances that migrants sent home to build Russian-speaking schools in those former Soviet countries, where he said the Russian language does not enjoy state protection.

"Uzbekistan is not the estate of lawmaker Pyotr Tolstoi. Let him deal with the problems of his own country and citizens," wrote Bobur Bekmurodov, a lawmaker in Uzbekistan, which Tolstoi had targeted for the measure along with Armenia and Tajikistan.

Bekmurodov added that Russian was freely spoken in Uzbekistan, which he described as "an allied nation" of Russia.

Uzbekistan, with a population of some 35 million people, is the biggest sender of citizens to Russia in absolute terms, with several million Uzbeks believed to reside there.

Labor Shortages

The irony of Tolstoi's comments is that Russia needs migrants on the economic front just as much as ever due to labor shortages borne from Russia's long-term demographic issues and exacerbated by the war.

Monitoring carried out by the Moscow-based Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy and analyzed by the Russian news site RBK indicated that the number of industrial enterprises reporting staff shortages reached 42 percent in July compared to about 25 percent in January 2022 -- the month before Russia launched its invasion.

Migrant laborers work at a market in Moscow in June 2021.
Migrant laborers work at a market in Moscow in June 2021.

This fact was alluded to in comments in September by Russia's business ombudsman, Boris Titov, who said proposals to limit access to the Russian labor market for foreigners to migrants "remain absolutely unrealistic if you look at them through the eyes of an economist," despite "all the merits of such steps in the cultural sense."

Oleg Buklemishev, director of the Economic Policy Research Center at Moscow State University, argued in an interview with the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) last week that Russia risks losing those supplies of migrant labor that it has at present given the weakness of the ruble.

"They always have a choice -- to go to Russia or somewhere else. And if they don't like the exchange rate, they won't go. No one is interested in earning money in rubles in order to receive 'kopeks' in the currency they take home," he argued.

Russian authorities are well aware of this problem, but migration policy remains "very contradictory" insofar as authorities use "anti-migrant legislation rhetoric and legislation as a populist tool to distract the population from other issues in society," according to Yan Matusevich, an independent expert on Eurasian migration.

Kyrgyz labor migrants wait to leave to work in Russia at the office of a company organizing passenger transportation to Russia in Bishkek on October 17.
Kyrgyz labor migrants wait to leave to work in Russia at the office of a company organizing passenger transportation to Russia in Bishkek on October 17.

"On the one hand, Russia has simplified and expedited the naturalization process for Central Asian migrants," he told RFE/RL. "At the same time, it passed legislation in April that gives the state the authority to quickly revoke Russian citizenship from naturalized citizens who threaten national security. This includes any kind of denouncement of the war in Ukraine or refusal to show up for conscription."

An idea to amnesty migrants guilty of minor migration violations -- specifically to cover shortages in the construction industry -- was supported by some lawmakers in March, but the proposal has failed to become policy.

"Ultimately, Russian legislators see migrants purely as a resource: for much-needed labor in the context of a dwindling workforce and potential draftees into a military struggling to attract new recruits," Matusevich said.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.