Prejudice - always a vote winner

Moscow’s mayoral elections have seen a sharp rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric —language common in Europe, but previously confined to Russia’s far right. Madeleine Reeves has been following the campaign. 

Madeleine Reeves
6 September 2013

On September 8th, for the first time in a decade, Muscovites have the opportunity to vote for a new mayor, kind of. The election is a small concession to Russia’s political opposition, which saw a vocal Moscow-based middle-class take to the streets in 2011 to express their disillusion with a presidential party that was stifling political debate. Shortly after the last mayoral elections in 2003 Putin reinstated direct appointment of the Moscow mayor and regional governors as part of his assertion of a “vertical of power” throughout the country. In the case of the Moscow mayor, that decision was quietly reversed following the 2011 demonstrations: a PR coup, many said, that would not really affect the nature of politics as usual.

Dormitories in Moscow. Photgraph: Madeleine Reeves

But today the billboards are out, with their pictures of mayoral candidates in decisive poses. There are slogans that speak to the concerns of an increasingly aspirational middle class (“Order, Comfort, Plenty” for Zhirinovskii’s LDPR; “Moscow power under the control of Muscovites” for the liberal Yabloko party). State buildings are getting a hasty coat of paint; there are election ads and TV debates (albeit without the participation of the incumbent and likely winner, Sergei Sobyanin), as well as pop-up campaign booths near the entrance to metro stations. The poster boy of the political opposition, Aleksei Navalny, is running a slick campaign to “change Russia, starting from Moscow”. Amid the polemics over public transport and parks, bike-paths and Moscow’s escalating real estate costs, one issue has dominated the campaign: the place of Moscow’s highly visible, economically marginalised and legally precarious population of seasonal migrant workers.

Election season has seen a normalisation of anti-migrant sentiment that had previously been confined to the far right. These include the publication of some questionable data (such as the claim that half of all crime in Moscow is committed by out-of-towners in Navalny’s election manifesto) and calls by several of the mayoral candidates for the introduction of a visa regime with the states of Central Asia—states that are today some of the most remittance-dependent in the world. In recent weeks, there have been highly publicised raids on markets and at metro-stations and vigilante sweeps of migrant apartments.  Video footage  shows scores of Central Asian labour migrants being frog-marched, prisoner-of-war style through a Moscow suburb. A huge tented community  of 600 mostly Vietnamese textile workers, growing by the day, has been constructed in Eastern Moscow as a holding centre ahead of deportation, one of eighty planned across the country. The mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party has urged that the migrants detained there be given survival rations and be made to work “for the good of Moscow” before they are deported.


A still from video footage showing immigrants being marched, prisoner-of-war-style through a suburb of Moscow

These populist public crack-downs on illegal residence and labour in the city belie a profound tension at the heart of Russian migration policy. On the one hand, fears of demographic decline, depopulating mono-industry towns, and an oil-fuelled building boom have generated huge demands for low-paid, un-unionised and tractable migrant labour. Whole industries, including market retail, catering, cleaning, and construction, have come to rely upon seasonal migrant workers from poorer states to Russia’s south, often employed in sweat-shop conditions. There have been simplified procedures for some post-Soviet citizens to receive Russian citizenship, and ethnic Russians in former Soviet states have been actively courted as compatriots to be helped with finding housing and work in a “motherland” where most have never previously lived. On the other hand, politically restrictive quotas for documented, legally recognised labour, and the lack of a minimum wage policy mean that those (mostly non-Slavic) seasonal migrant workers who cannot access privileged routes to citizenship are often, of necessity, working or living in conditions that are in violation of civic administrative codes.

Whole industries have come to rely upon seasonal migrant workers from poorer states to Russia’s south, often employed in sweat-shop conditions.

There is a stark political economy to the illegalisation of migrant labour that goes unremarked in much of the election-season hand-wringing over the city’s growing population of nelegaly (“illegals” in derogatory officialese). For one thing, demand for labour that is low-paid, verbally contracted, un-unionised, and flexible far exceeds the city’s (deliberately minimalist) quota of work permits. Perhaps as many as four fifths of the city’s migrant workers are therefore employed without an official work permit, or individual patent permitting private employment. There is an open market for official work permits, as well as a (near indistinguishable) market for fakes. As I have explored in my research  on the difficulty of creating documented selves in Russia, the degrees of intermediation for obtaining a work permit means that “cleans” and “fakes” are often distinguishable only at the point that they are checked by the police.

At the same time, the gulf between average wages and average rental costs in the city mean that many migrant workers live in conditions that violate administrative regulations: in multi-tenant “rubber apartments” (rezinovye kvartiry) without corresponding residential registration, in container-dormitories on building sites, or in the unventilated basement of a multi-storey apartment building entirely unrecorded within city housing stock. The choices here are stark: for those on a typical migrant wage in the catering sector of 15-17,000 roubles (around £300-£330 per month) the only way to make ends meet in a context where the rental costs exceed average wages three or four-fold is to share an apartment illegally with 15 or 20 other tenants, paying money to a notional “landlord” (another migrant who takes a cut) and paying off the local policeman to ensure that the apartment is protected from raids. In a city where the 2010 census identified over 92% of the city’s registered population to be ethnically Russian (russkii), the economic constraints upon legal migrant labour have made for an easy popular conflation between being visibly non-Russian, being a “guest worker” (gastarbaiter), and being an illegal.


Moscow city authorities have announced a crackdown on illegal accommodation. A widening gulf between wages and rental costs means this type of accomodation is invariably the only option available to the city's immigrant population. Photo: Ilya Varlamov

Xenophobia is not new in Moscow. But the combination of a laissez-faire wage policy (with a race to the bottom for undocumented labour), together with excessive restrictions on legally documented labour, and the widespread use of bribes to circumvent administrative regulations has allowed for the normalisation of a casual racism in which discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is justified through concerns for security and comfort—or protection against “illegals”. One commercial website  offering temporary accommodation to non-Muscovites, for instance, cites its own policy of ethnic selection in the following terms:

Economic constraints upon legal migrant labour have made for an easy popular conflation between being visibly non-Russian ... and being an illegal

“we don’t have racist prejudices, but today the situation has developed such that the largest demand for a place to stay in Moscow comes from Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians. In accordance with the existing demand for inexpensive hostel accommodation in Moscow, we attempt only to house people of Slavic appearance (litsa slavianskoi vneshnosti), for the comfortable living conditions of all residents, and in so doing avoid any conflictual situations.”

The conflation between ethnic origin and legal status has also made its way into the heart of election talk, in which “Uzbeks”, “migrant”, “guest-workers” and “illegals” tend to be invoked interchangeably. Here’s the incumbent, Sobyanin in a May 2013 interview about his vision of the city and the role of its migrant population. Moscow is a Russian city, he insisted, “not Chinese, not Tajik, not Uzbek”: 

“I’m against the idea that just anyone is able to stay. If people are to stay it is first of all Russian-speakers, with an acceptable culture [s adekvatnoi kul’turoi], compatriots as we say. [But] people who speak Russian badly, who have a completely different culture, it’s better that they live in their own country. Therefore we don’t welcome their adaptation [ikh adaptatsiia] to Moscow, I consider that these people are seasonal workers who have worked and then should go home to their families, to their homes, to their countries.”

And here’s the opposition candidate, Navalny, writing on his blog in characteristic polemic, criticising Sobyanin’s own city officials for employing irregular migrant workers (here simply “Uzbeks”) to take down Navalny campaign banners:

“Dear Sergei Semonovich [Sobyanin],
You’ve not answered my previous questions [about how the mayoralty has been stealing paving slabs and trees]. But maybe you’ll answer me this, why you with your jobbing Uzbeks you are stealing our Navalny banners from the balconies of people who’ve put them there? As we know, you have given the order for the head of the building administrations to take the banners from balconies.

  1. This is illegal. The banner is the property of the campaign HQ […]
  2. It is dangerous. Your Uzbeks are rock-climbing without any safety nets for this kind of work. They’ll fall and kill themselves.
  3. Those who don’t die will tell other Uzbeks just how easy and simple it is to get into Muscovites’ apartments this way. It will lead to an increase in apartment robberies. […]

Sobyanin’s and Navalny’s tone and intended audience are quite different here. And yet both rely on a series of reflexive conflations about culture, labour, exploitability, and the capacity (or not) for “adaptation” of non-Slavic migrants within Moscow society.

In this mayoral race, as in so many others in European capitals, sustained debate about what an economically vibrant and socially inclusive city might look like has been sidelined in favour of politically dubious stunts to look tough on irregular migration. In a context where whole industries depend on migrants’ documentary illegibility (and economic quiescence), it is the city’s non-Slavic migrants themselves who are bearing the brunt of this political experiment.

First published at: CitiesMCR

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