Azerbaijani leaders have noted a dramatic rise in the number of attacks against Azeris living in Russia following the Moscow theater hostage crisis. Some experts in believe that Russia's xenophobic reaction to the late October crisis could have a negative economic impact on Caucasus and Central Asian states, discouraging seasonal laborers from migrating to Russia in search of temporary jobs.
Foreigners in Russia, especially those of Caucasus states, have long experienced arbitrary searches and harassment at the hands of law-enforcement officials. However, in the days following the hostage crisis [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive] discriminatory practices seem to have intensified. The issue threatens to disrupt a warming trend in Azerbaijani-Russian relations. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Concern over discrimination against Azeris in Russia reached the point that Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliyev on November 4 had a hastily arranged telephone discussion that touched on the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Later, Azerbaijan's First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov traveled to Moscow for emergency consultations. Abbasov received assurances from Russian officials that the rights of Azeris legally residing in Russia would receive increased protection.
The worst incident involving Azeris occurred October 31 when a detachment of special police, or OMON, raided a suburban Moscow market where the vendors were predominantly Azeri. In the ensuing melee, one Azeri vendor, identified as Hasim Ajarly, died from injuries. Up to 20 other Azeris were hospitalized and about 90 were taken into custody. A spokesman for the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow characterized the incident as a "terrorist act," Baku's ANS-TV reported. The detained Azeris were subsequently released following diplomatic talks between Baku and Moscow.Officials in other Caucasus and Central Asian states, such as Tajikistan, have also expressed concern about the safety of citizens of their respective countries' in Russia. Some worry that outrage over the Chechens' terrorist act may fuel hostility among Russians towards all Muslims. Others suggest Russia may continue to tighten immigration procedures, perhaps introducing visa requirements for citizens of Caucasus and Central Asian states.
Even before the hostage crisis, Russia was intending to tighten the legal framework for economic migrants, many of whom come from neighboring CIS states. Russian legislation that took effect November 1 requires all foreigners who reside in Russia for more than three months to carry government-issued identification cards. A $100 fee must be paid to obtain a card. Even if Russia does not impose further administrative barriers, recent developments could have profound economic ramifications for Azerbaijan and other CIS states. In Azerbaijan's case, an estimated 3 million Azeris, many of them guest workers, live in Russia. Much of the income earned by Azeris in Russia, estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion annually, is remitted back to Azerbaijan, where the money is a critical element in keeping tens of thousands of families nourished and clothed.
According to Azer Allaverdiyev, a coordinator at the Migration Resource Center in Baku, the new Russian legislation may at first discourage prospective economic migrants from departing for Russia. However, Allaverdiyev added that once Azeris become more familiar with the new procedures, migration would probably revert to old levels.
At the same time, if discrimination against Azeris in Russia maintains its current trend, the results could be more damaging for the Azerbaijani economy. A hostile working environment could drastically shrink the Russian labor market for Azeris. Such a development could deprive many families in Azerbaijan of an important source of income, significantly expanding the number of impoverished. It could also exacerbate Azerbaijan's unemployment woes, thus adding to the ranks of the discontent.
Tajikistan is another country that depends heavily on remittances earned by guest workers in Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. According to regional media reports, officials in Dushanbe have said that, given the post-hostage crisis atmosphere, many Tajik citizens are reluctant to travel to Russia to search for work.
In an attempt to avert future labor trouble, Azerbaijan's envoy to Russia, Ramiz Rizayev, said the two countries would explore a bilateral treaty to define the status of Azerbaijan citizens in the Russian Federation and of Russian citizens in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani and Russian officials are expected to hold talks in mid-November on the status of labor migrants.
Naila Sohbetqizi is a freelance journalist based in Baku.