Russia: Do Labor Migrants Have an Unexpected Ally?
Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure and a candidate for Moscow mayor, has reached out to the city’s migrant communities, meeting with eight migrant rights activists on August 16, according to the weekly Bolshoy Gorod (“Big City”) Magazine.
The meeting is somewhat of a surprise, given that Navalny has taken part in xenophobic nationalist marches against migrants in the past.
News of the meeting so far appears limited to comments by one participant, since the Navalny campaign asked participants not to disclose the contents of the discussion, promising to release a video of the event. (Those comments by Bella Shakhmirza, founder of the Face to Face lecture series on ethnic relations in Russia, give little away. She describes Navalny’s position as “frightening” and “nationalist,” while calling him “charismatic” and characterizing the atmosphere of the meeting as “very good.”)
But given Navalny’s penchant for outright ethnic slurs against people of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the past, the fact that the meeting took place at all appears to be a nod toward the potential influence of Moscow’s migrants – and their sympathizers – in the September 8 vote, which includes regional elections in eight federal entities of Russia and several mayoral races in major cities.
According to the Federal Migration Service, of 5 million migrants from former Soviet countries working in Russia, 3 million do not have proper work authorization. Others say the numbers are higher.
But under Russia’s election law, citizens of former Soviet countries that have voting agreements with Russia may cast, and even stand for election, provided they have Russian residency. That could include voters from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, according to an interpretation by Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Migrants – legal and illegal – are thought to make up at least 10 percent of Moscow’s population.
Navalny's nationalist leanings have divided Moscow's liberal voters in the past, with many asking how his ideas about ethnic policy and immigration would differ from the current government's – not just in Moscow but, eventually, on the national stage.
Since mid-July, law enforcement officers in Moscow and elsewhere have carried out raids against illegal migrants that have left hundreds in rudimentary detention centers pitched to accommodate the unanticipated need. A recent run on the suburban town of Odintsovo, outside Moscow, yielded at least 1800 detentions, while a similar raid in the city of Tyumen yielded 800 in just one day, local media reported.
Human rights groups in Russia have staged numerous actions in support of the country’s undocumented migrants. At least two prominent organizations – Colta.ru, a largely crowdsource-funded online magazine; and the Civic Assistance Committee, an immigrant rights organization – have also circulated online petitions calling on federal and Moscow city authorities to close the detention camps.
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