Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Xenophobia in Russia

From Bloomberg today:

Slapping a coat of paint on the pedestal of a bust of Lenin in a provincial Russian town may not be much of a job. Kuram, 49, says it beats making the equivalent of $16 a month back home in Uzbekistan.

``If things were better there, I wouldn't be here,'' says the tractor driver, at work in Khotkovo, 60 kilometers (37 miles), northeast of Moscow. He declined to give his last name for fear of running afoul of Russian immigration authorities.

As Russia's booming economy creates greater wealth and aspirations among its citizens, it is also forcing them to confront issues more familiar in the West: discrimination, harassment and even violence aimed at foreign workers like Kuram, who see economic opportunity in taking jobs Russians can't or won't do.

A shrinking local workforce complicates matters, as oil- powered economic growth fuels demand for offices, apartments and shopping malls -- along with people to build and maintain them.

``There is such a deficit of labor all over Russia, just at a time when Russia has woken up,'' says Vladimir Mikhailov, head of construction for NTT, a company based outside Khotkovo that owns state farms, a bank and machine-tool factories.

Kuram, who lives in a trailer, earns about 7,500 rubles, or $300, a month doing odd jobs.

Sweeping Streets

He and his two co-workers, also from Uzbekistan, are among about 4.9 million labor migrants sweeping streets, washing dishes, digging ditches and doing menial building-site work, according to figures from Moscow's Russian Economics Institute. Unofficial estimates put the number at 10 million, most of them from former Soviet republics.

The migrant workers, many with darker skin or Mongoloid facial features, are a visible presence in major cities, and not always welcome -- even though the Russian Federation is a multiethnic country, with more than 100 non-Slavic nationalities, including Tatars, Bashkirs and others.

Attacks against foreigners, some fatal, have been rising. Sova, a Moscow-based group that tracks hate crimes, reports 435 victims of Russian race-based assaults in 2005 and 575 in 2006. In the first four months of this year, there were 209, a third higher than the same period last year.

Still, the migrants come because they say they need the work. The Russian government in the last year has come to the grudging conclusion that it needs them, too.

Falling Population

Russian economic growth has averaged 6.7 percent a year since 1999. Meanwhile, Russia's population fell to 143.8 million in 2006 from 148.7 million in 1992 and continues to slide by almost 1 million a year, government statistics show.

The workforce decline is dramatic. According to the Health and Social Development Ministry, it will drop 12 percent to 65.5 million by 2010 from 74.5 million now because of low fertility rates and the high number of alcohol-related deaths.

Mikhailov says 40 percent of his farm and construction workers are foreigners, many of them of Muslims who don't drink.

``To get Russians to work with their hands is very difficult,'' he says. ``Those between 30 and 40, who could work, are already off on their own. Those who couldn't are drinking now. That's the truth. Why hide it?''

Life expectancy for Russian men is 59 years, two years less than for Uzbek men, even though Russia's per-capita income is six times Uzbekistan's $2,000, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Political Convulsions

Russia is home to the world's second-largest number of immigrants, after the U.S. During the political convulsions following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, millions of people crossed new national borders. Ethnic Russians returned from the republics, joined by millions of undocumented Tajiks, Uzbeks, Moldovans and others.

For people like Kuram, entering Russia isn't difficult: They don't need visas for the first three months. The hard part is working legally. Until this year, almost all labor migrants were part of the ``grey'' economy, exploited by businesses, paid miserable wages and vulnerable to harassment by Russian police.

To give them legal status, the Russian Parliament passed a law in January setting quotas nationally and by region. This year's quota was 6.1 million workers, with 700,000 for Moscow, says Andrei Markov, a World Bank human-development specialist.

`Still Raw'

Fines for employing an illegal worker are as much as 800,000 rubles, Mikhailov says. Yet it can take weeks for migrants to move through waiting lists at the Federal Migration Service, during which they cannot be legally employed. ``The law is still raw,'' he says.

At Khotkovo's main square, in front of a privatized department store named ``Beloved,'' Kuram and his friends struggle with rickety scaffolding as they paint the pedestal with the bust of Lenin.

In the nearby village of Akhtyrka, a workman rebuilds a burned-down cottage, or ``izba,'' as music in the nasal tones of his native Tajik blasts from a boom box.

Most migrants say they long to be with their families. Kuram is heading to Uzbekistan this month, he says, to see his wife and four children. He'll come back, like others seeking jobs they can't find at home.

``If America would let me in, I'd go there,'' he says, laughing at his own joke.

To contact the reporter on this story: Celestine Bohlen in Khotkovo

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