Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Central Asia Fears Russian Backlash

There's growing concern that Russian nationalists may punish Central Asians for the Moscow theatre siege.
By IWPR staff

Central Asians fear the Moscow hostage tragedy may provoke a backlash against compatriots living in Russia.


The three-day drama ended on Saturday, October 26, when Russian special forces stormed the Moscow House of Culture where Chechen militants were holding more than 800 theatregoers. One hundred and twenty hostages and 50 rebels were killed in the operation.


Seven Central Asians were among the hostages. One, a teenage girl from Kazakstan, died and three others were among the survivors.


News of the tragedy sent shock waves across Central Asia, but there were also fears that President Vladimir Putin's anti-extremist campaign might affect Central Asians living in Russia.


There are currently millions of Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek migrant workers in Russian cities - although not all are registered with the authorities.


Most of the Tajiks live in Moscow and its suburbs doing menial jobs. The majority of Kyrgyz are engaged in shuttle trading and have settled in Siberian cities, while Uzbek seasonal workers are found in towns in the Ural region.


According to the Kyrgyz deputy Tajinis Abdurasulov, "It is no secret that Russian customs officials and police - not to mention local nationalists - have always treated people from Central Asia and Caucasus with animosity. Now they will take this Moscow tragedy out on them."


Erkin Okumaliev, editor of the Kyrgyz migrants' newspaper Daat, also fears for his countrymen. "With every trip to Russia I realise more and more that any political event in this country can increase intolerance, particularly among young people," he said.


Well-known rights activist Yrysbek Omurzakov is worried for Kyrgyz shuttle traders working in Russian markets, "We are deeply concerned that the hostage-taking in Moscow will provoke a wave of attacks from nationalists."


From the first day of the crisis, Russian broadcasters called on the authorities to tighten control over the movements of people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, with some advocating a strict visa regime.


The rhetoric was such that the Moscow authorities began to fear that reprisals against non-Russians could follow.


Moscow student Anton Zhuravliov, originally from Almaty in Kazakstan, told IWPR that negative attitudes to Central Asians and Caucasians are getting worse - and they now extend to ethnic Russians from these regions. "Some among those who know we are from Kazkastan look askance at us and mock us," he said.


The feeling of menace has grown to the point where Zhuravliov and his friends try to get home before dark, to avoid being targeted by nationalist thugs. "Our teachers at the university urge us to leave early so we get home safely. We stopped going out to discos or nightclubs, " he said.


"It does not matter to Muscovites whether you are a Chechen or an ethnic Kazak. They tar them all with the same brush."


Tajik presidential adviser Mansur Surush told IWPR that there was a real danger that some people in Russia could use the events in Moscow - in which Chechen militants demanded an end to the conflict in their country - to revive anti-Muslim sentiments.


Mukhiddin Kabiri of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan believes the crisis will have long-term consequences.


"This event plays into the hands of radical and nationalist groups in Russia who have strong establishment backing," he said. "I hope that the Russian government will not be influenced by these groups and will not take radical measures - such as extraditing Tajik citizens. That would be catastrophic for the republic."


Dushanbe resident Nigina Saidalieva has two sons who live and work in Moscow, and was unable to contact them during the siege. Terrified that they may have been injured or killed in a nationalist revenge attack, she did not sleep or eat for three days until she received a phone call from them.


"They spent all these days at home and had run out of food. It was only when one of their neighbours visited them that they could get a loaf of bread," she told IWPR,


In the last six months alone, more than 40 Tajiks have died at the hands of Russian skinheads. Last week, a Tajik man was badly beaten in the Vykhino area of Moscow when he went out to buy some groceries.


Dushanbe foreign ministry official Igor Sattarov said Tajik citizens currently living in Russia are not packing their suitcases. That may be so, but many of those who recently came home for short visits are now far too scared to return.


Nayzik Ataeva in Ashgabat, Galima Bukharbaeva in Tashkent, Lidia Isamova in Dushanbe, Timur Jagiparov in Almaty and Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek contributed


to this report