Ethnic Divisions In Russia Grow Sharper

Police in Moscow have been rounding up hundreds of migrant workers after an ethnic riot in the southern part of the city. Thousands of ethnic Slavic men rioted after an ethnic Slav was murdered — allegedly by a migrant from the North Caucasus region. Migrants from southern Russia and the Central Asian republics are routinely blamed for crimes in the Russian capital.

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It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. You would think Russia would want to ease tensions with its large Muslim minorities, since in February it will be hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a town in the Caucasus Mountains that's close to large Muslim populations. But over the weekend, mobs of Russian nationalists, some of them visibly drunk, vandalized a Moscow market and attacked Muslim migrants who were working there. Many rioters were arrested, most released. But then the police turned to the victims, detaining around 1,500 migrants - many from the Caucasus region.

We spoke with NPR's Corey Flintoff to learn more. Corey, good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: What exactly seems to have happened here?

FLINTOFF: Well, we only have the bare outlines from the police report, but a 25 year old man was stabbed to death as he was walking home with his girlfriend. He was an ethnic Slav, you know, that is to say, this sort of light skinned, blond haired person.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

FLINTOFF: The police have been circulating surveillance camera footage of a suspect that they say appears to be a migrant from the North Caucasus. And the stereotype there is a dark skinned, dark haired person from Chechnya or Dagestan. So that report was apparently enough to set off this riot by several thousand people and they're Russian nationalist, soccer hooligan types who attacked a market area where these migrants worked.

And there was the usual. There was looting of the market, there were cars overturned, rocks and bottles at the police and attacks on migrants, things like that. Police arrested several hundred people who were involved in that, but the next day, they did the sweep of the neighborhood, as you mentioned, and detained more than a thousand migrants - for no other reason than that they might be involved in criminal activity.

GREENE: These are people who are ethnically Caucasian, from this predominantly Muslim region of southern Russia. Why the outbursts against migrants?

FLINTOFF: Immigration in Russia is a lot like immigration in the United States. Russia needs workers, especially in these sort of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, so it's a big magnet for people from south Russia and from Central Asia. They have high rates of poverty there, very high unemployment, especially for young men.

These immigrants typically don't have a lot of education. They often don't speak Russian. Most of them are Muslims. So to the nationalists, these sort right-wing, skinhead groups, the immigrants, are the other, the sinister foreigners they can blame for all kinds of things.

And it's worth noting that the neighborhood where the riots took place is this tough, gritty industrial suburb in south Moscow, where nobody's getting along very well. So it's a place that's just sort of ripe for this kind of violence.

GREENE: And to see the authorities actually target the migrants, I mean the people who seem to be the victims of this, what does that say about the authorities? I mean are they trying to get political support from nationalists? Or what's going on here?

FLINTOFF: I think they simply don't know what to do. We're hearing a lot from people in the parliament about cracking down on migrants, but we're not hearing anything much about how this migrant labor might be incorporated into the society. So I think this is kind of lashing out. This is a kind of authoritarian response to a problem that needs a coherent, governmental solution.

GREENE: Corey, thanks a lot for talking to us.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Moscow bureau chief Corey Flintoff.

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