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

Hard Times for Caucasians in Moscow

Residents and migrants say they are under increasing pressure from nationalist thugs.
By Vahe Avanisian
Armenia is still reeling from the brutal murder of 18-year-old Artur Sardarian last month. Sardarian, an Armenian resident of Moscow, was taking a commuter train home from work on May 25 when a group of lads set on him, stabbing him in the neck and then five more times in the chest.



Each knife thrust was accompanied by cries of “Glory to Russia!” eyewitnesses said.



The attack took place on the day celebrations kicked off for “Armenia Year” in Russia.



In the Caucasus, there was shock at a murder whose motive was so patently the ethnic origin of the victim. Nor was Sardarian the first foreigner murdered in Russia since the beginning of the year – a Senegalese student and another Armenian were killed in April.



The sense that xenophobic violence is on the rise is supported by data from Sova, a British non-governmental group that monitors racist attacks in Russia, which indicated that 18 people have been killed and more than 100 injured in hate crimes so far in 2006.



Doudou Diene, the United Nations special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia who has just completed a report on Russia, told a press conference in Moscow on June 16 that he was concerned not only at the rising number of assaults on foreigners, but also by the increasingly brutal nature seen in these attacks.



President Vladimir Putin roundly condemned the phenomenon when he met with Russian interior ministry staff on February 17.



“Belligerent nationalism and attempts to provoke inter-ethnic conflict endanger the life and constitutional rights of citizens, hamper the stable existence of the state, and undermine its integrity. And, of course, it does immense damage to Russia’s image worldwide,” he said.



Although there are no precise data, non-government groups estimate that there are around two million Armenians living in Russia, the same number of Azerbaijanis and over a million Georgians.



A Russian foundation called Public Opinion had done a survey which shows that about half of all Muscovites polled tends to dislike people from the Caucasus. Interestingly, those surveyed also said they thought other Russians in the capital held even less tolerant views.



And as Levon Ananian, who heads the Armenian Writers’ Union, points out, that is just Moscow, “We learn from the press about the high-profile killings in the capital, but it’s clear the same is happening in remote places throughout Russia.”



Moscow’s first ethnic murder this year happened on April 7 in Saint Petersburg, when a group of skinheads attacked some dark-skinned students. A student from Senegal, Samba Lampsar Sall, was shot dead, and a gun marked with a swastika was found at the crime scene.



Two weeks later, skinheads dressed in black uniforms stabbed Armenian student Vigen Abramiants in the heart at Moscow’s busiest underground station, Pushkinskaya.



Elhan Mirzoyev, who works as a producer with the well-known television station NTV and is of Azerbaijani origin was beaten within an inch of his life at another Moscow underground stations on April 3. The gang who attacked him said he had no right to live in Russia. The doctors who put seven stitches in his head told him it was a miracle he had survived.



Although these cases clearly bore the hallmarks of racist crime, prosecutors only included the Russian criminal code clause covering ethnic crimes in their indictments only after strong pressure from lawyers for the two Armenians.



“The fact that people are being killed in Russia because of their dark hair, swarthy skin or the shape of their eyes is harming the country’s image,” said Moscow-based lawyer Simon Tsaturian, who is acting for the two murdered Armenians. “That is why some officials might be tempted to change the way the cases are presented, and put them in a different light.”



Vigen Abrahamiants’s father Rafael agreed with this view, citing an investigator on the case who told him he had nearly lost his job after bringing the criminal action under Russian legislation covering “murder on ethnic grounds”.



“What marked me most during the encounters and conversations I’ve had?" the UN’s Diene told reporters. "It is the feeling of fear and of solitude expressed by a number of foreign communities and ethnic minorities - the Africans have been very vocal about it, as well as people from the Caucasus and Central Asia… This is a very alarming sign.”



Diene warned that the wave of racist attacks, if unchecked, could soon target not only ethnic minorities, but even those who lobby to protect them.



He noted that Russia still lacked clear laws on discrimination, and urged the government to demonstrate a stronger political will to fight racism and xenophobia.



The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, claims the authorities in the capital are doing their best to curb xenophobic sentiment. “We have over 100 nationalities living here, and things do happen,” he told IWPR. “But there are also cases like one where one of our policemen died protecting an Armenian family from raiders.”



Ella Pamfilova, who chairs the Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council, a body which answers to President Putin, said the growth of xenophobia was mainly a consequence of corruption and flawed migration laws.



“Adopting an intelligible law would go against the interests of corrupt groups, which exist everywhere including in government agencies,” Pamfilova told IWPR. “It’s far more convenient to have illegal people deprived of their civil rights, to rob them in markets, than to have legalised citizens who would pay taxes to the state and observe all the laws. Because in the latter case the state would have to protect their rights.”



Despite President Putin’s and Mayor Luzhkov’s assurances, there are politicians and analysts in Russia and in the southern Caucasus who believe the Russian authorities are in fact encouraging radical nationalism.



“In most cases, ethnically motivated crimes in Russia either go unpunished or the punishment is inadequate,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the Yabloko opposition party in Russia. “I’m sure the authorities have an interest in xenophobia being unleashed. I have no facts or evidence to prove this, but it’s quite possible that the authorities have some influence over the skinheads, and that they support and manipulate them.”



The link between the gangs of youths and nationalistic political groups is clearer. Such organisations as the Great Russian National Party, the Union of Slavs, the National Bolshevist Party and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, and others too, are all active in and around Moscow.



Alexander Chervyakov, a spokesman for the Great Russian National Party, set out his group’s views in remarks to IWPR, “We are not going to let foreigners humiliate us. We are fighting against those who are trying to take our homeland away from us. We... are able to defend what belongs to us and take revenge on our enemies.”



Chervyakov would not respond to questions about why young men like Sardarian and Abrahamiants should be considered enemies of Russia.



According to Eduard Limonov, the head of the National Bolsheviks, “Being a skinhead is fashionable in Russia these days. Young people are attracted to crewcuts, black gear, big boots and a particular kind of music. It’s a modern youth movement.”



Alexander Prokhanov, editor of the Zavtra newspaper which promotes nationalist views, said resentment among Russians was spurred by the hardship of daily life “People have to think about how to earn their meager daily bread at a time when foreigners are milling to and fro before their eyes. And there are many [foreigners], too many of them now,” he told IWPR.



It is unclear whether such views are affecting migrants from the three south Caucasian countries as they make decisions about coming to Russia or staying there.



Ara Abrahamian, who heads the Union of Armenians in Russia, said that following the recent attacks on his countrymen, he had noticed a decline in the number of people coming from Armenia to look for jobs. At the same time, he said, few people were actually deciding to leave once they arrived. “The situation is difficult to judge,” he said. “People are unlikely to leave for fear of encountering skinheads in the street. Although that too plays a part.”



Georgian political analyst Mamuka Areshidze pointed to the deteriorating diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Tbilisi as an additional factor affecting migrants from Georgia.



“Of course political relationships play a very important part in this, and the worsening of relations between Georgia and Russia has done a great deal of damage to the many Georgians living in Russia, who are now having problems with their jobs and businesses. In terms of morale, it’s very hard,” he said. “Still, the extents of this are not so global as to force Caucasians now living in Russia to start returning home. I don’t think anyone in Russia will dare set up a united front against Caucasians.”



Meanwhile, people from the Caucasus now living in Moscow either permanently or as migrant labour continue to find their own ways of dealing with hostile attitudes.



Sixteen-year-old Ruslana Samedova copes by concealing her ethnic identity. She counts herself lucky to look more like her Russian mother than her Azerbaijani father. “Even my closest friends don’t know I’m Azerbaijani,” she admitted. “None of my schoolmates has ever seen my father - I’m literally hiding him from everyone. As for my Azerbaijani surname, I have to invent all sorts of stories to explain it.



“If they find out I’m Azerbaijani – even on one side only – at school, that’ll be the end of me. I’ve seen how one of my classmates was driven close to suicide. Her family had to move to Baku. I don’t want to suffer the same fate.”



Vahe Avanesian is director of the Moscow office of the TV-company Shant. Samira Akhmedbeili is a correspondent for the newspaper Azerros in Moscow. Sofo Bukia is a correspondent for 24 Saati in Tbilisi.

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