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‘In the Wake of the Massacre Near Moscow, Russian Anti-Migrant Policies Could Backfire’ 

Can the Kremlin respond to calls to limit Central Asian migration, when Russia faces a demographic crisis?

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The Crocus City Hall terror attack, in which 133 people were killed by Islamic extremists, has unleashed a wave of xenophobia all over Russia. While the Kremlin blames Ukraine and the West for the massacre, public anger over the tragedy appears to have been directed at the millions of Central Asian migrant workers living in the Russian Federation. 

Moscow is using its war on Ukraine to profoundly transform Russian society. Anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric in the Russian media has already become a norm. Army recruitment advertisements plastered on billboards and shop windows can be seen on the streets of almost every Russian city. The Kremlin is investing significantly in militarizing children and youth.

But after the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) terrorist attack on a sold-out concert on the outskirts of Moscow on 22 March, certain factions within the Russian ruling elite seem to have launched a campaign against migrants from Central Asia. Tajiks have become their major target, given that four suspects in the Moscow terror attacks are citizens of Tajikistan.

Sergey Mironov – the leader of A Just Russia Party, which is part of Russia’s state-authorized opposition – proposed the introduction of a visa regime for Central Asian countries to “tackle the growing threat”. He sees such a measure as a “step to strengthen security and cooperation throughout the Eurasian space.”

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But the Kremlin is unlikely to accept Mironov’s proposal. Some Central Asian nations are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) – a Russia-dominated entity that has developed a common labour market for citizens of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. A visa regime for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would have a serious impact on the very future of the EAEU. That is why Moscow will try to use other methods to control the influx of migrants.

The Russian government plans to introduce “digital profiles” for all migrants, aiming to “better track the movement of foreign workers and ensure security”. Critics, however, argue that the authorities seek to create a “digital Gulag” for migrants. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, there are around 10 million labour migrants in Russia. It is believed that 80% of them are from Central Asia, namely from countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

In the Russian labour force, migrants occupy vital roles. They mostly work as taxi drivers, truck drivers, or supermarket workers. There are reports suggesting that the Kremlin is forcefully recruiting some foreign workers to fight in Ukraine. Thousands of them have reportedly been brought to the Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory – mostly to the city of Maripuol in the Donbas – to work on various construction projects. Ukrainian authorities believe that Russia aims to change the demographic composition of the temporarily occupied territories. 

Russian nationalists, on the other hand, indirectly accuse the Kremlin of having the same plans for the Russian Federation itself. In their view, the Russian ruling elite allegedly aims to replace ethnic Russians with migrants from Central Asia. Even the Russian Orthodox Church insists that the authorities must “stop non-Russian migration from Central Asia”, and attract “millions of highly qualified cadres, presumably from the West or from among Russian expatriates” instead. 

Despite the fact that he has been relatively successfully balancing the interests of various oligarchic groups for the past two decades, Vladimir Putin suddenly found himself in a rather difficult position. While Konstantin Malofeev, the so-called Russia’s “Orthodox Oligarch, took a strong anti-migrant stance, Aras Agalarov, the Russian-Azerbaijani oligarch who is also the owner of the Crocus City Hall, claims that “Russia cannot do without migrants”. Which faction does Putin support?

Opinion polls show that the majority of Russians want their leader to limit immigration into the Russian Federation. That is why the Kremlin allows certain political figures to criticize the current government’s migration policy. Even the late opposition leader Alexey Navalny supported anti-migrant measures. But Putin knows that Russia is facing a huge demographic crisis and that nearly one million young, educated Russians have fled the country over the past two years as they did not want to be mobilized to participate in his war in Ukraine. As a result, Russia is now short of around 4.8 million workers.


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That is why Putin can unlikely afford himself to radically change the country’s migration policy. While in 2003 he called “idiots and provocateurs” all those who supported the “Russia for Russians” political slogan and nationalist doctrine, he now insists that such ideas could “lead to the breakup of the Russian Federation”.

Putin, therefore, seems to back the “pro-migrant faction” within the ruling elite, although he likely decided to indirectly support the ongoing wave of repression against migrant workers from Central Asia.

Following the Crocus City Hall attack, Russian authorities started conducting raids on dormitories and apartments known to house Central Asian migrants and carrying out mass deportations. Taxi drivers in Moscow and other parts of Russia have reportedly been asked by clients to state that they were not Tajiks. As a result, the Ministry of Labor of Tajikistan reported that a rising number of Tajik migrant workers wish to leave Russia out of fear for their safety.  

However, the ongoing anti-migrant campaign could have a serious impact on Russian oligarchs who need migrants as cheap labour. It can also affect the so-called siloviki faction that can use Central Asians as cannon fodder in Ukraine. But Russian nationalists, and the Russian Orthodox Church, want them out of the country. 

Putin will, therefore, have a hard time finding a delicate balance that will allow him to avoid serious social and political turbulence in Russia.

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