Russia's Migrant Scapegoats

By Zach Schubert and Maura Kelly

As it approached the ten-year anniversary of its 1998 financial crisis, Russia's economy seemed to be thawing faster than the Bering Strait. Suddenly, thawing turned into melting when the 2008 market breakdown precipitated a recession that continues to outpace the global economic crisis. The effects of that recession have since spilled into the cracks of Russian society, where migrant workers fight harder than ever for jobs. This week, RUTV will focus on the vanishing opportunities this crucial workforce faces, as well as the rise of skinhead groups and institutionalized racism that continues to block their ability to integrate.

As Russia's economy boomed in the early and mid-2000s, officials ignored its top-heavy infrastructure and dependence on oil export. When oil prices declined, industry giants like Gazprom and Rosneft were hit hard. After Prime Minister Putin accused Russia's leading metals producer Mechel of corruption, the company's stock plunged by nearly 38%. That August, Russia fought Georgia in South Ossetia, prompting foreign investors to pull out of the already dragging market. The final nail in the coffin came with the American financial collapse that lost Russia several billion dollars worth of investments.

Russia's migrant workers have suffered the worst consequences of the recession. Traditionally, Russia's shrinking population and steady oil industry has encouraged immigration in volume second only to the United States. Most immigrants come from Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, where the money they send home accounts for nearly 10% of the country's GDP.

Every year, these workers cross the border into Russia in "ghost busses:" unregistered, illegal vehicles that operate under the shadow of severe police bribes. Those who can't pay for the ticket hand over their passport, signing themselves away as underpaid or enslaved labor.

As new populations form enclaves, ethnic Russians have backlashed violently. According to police estimates, there are about 15-20 thousand skinheads in Russia. Various neo-nazi groups comprise a total of up to 50,000 members. They are notorious for attacking immigrants on commuter trains, often taping the fights as a form of promotion.

In support of their attacks, skinheads claim government encouragement in the form of legislation that gives preference to native Russians for certain jobs. In 2007, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov initiated a ban on foreign workers in certain retail jobs. These include working at public markets and street vendors, as well as alcohol shops and pharmacies. Government officials say that this encourages immigrants to apply for legal residency. Critics argue that the policy serves the interest of xenophobic conservatives over human rights.

Joining us via Skype this week will be Jane Buchanan, Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch. She will be discussing her experiences with Russian migrant workers and the crimes they endure.

Also joining us via Skype will be George Tsikhiseli, News Director at Russian International Television. He will speak on the rise of Russia's neo-nazi groups, as well as give his opinion on what Russians can do to help protect migrant workers.

We're live at 6pm (EDT) Wednesday and on demand at