MOSCOW — When President Obama said in a recent interview that “immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity,” it was obvious he hadn’t spent much time on the streets of the Russian capital.
The United Nations estimates that 11 million immigrants are in Russia, the vast majority of whom are in keen search of “opportunity.” Indeed, only the United States is home to larger numbers of immigrants.
Russian immigration officials say most of the immigrants come from impoverished former Soviet republics in Central Asia such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: Russia has bilateral agreements on visa-free travel with these countries. Although immigrants from these majority Muslim states do not need visas to reside in Russia, they must obtain work permits before taking up employment.
Some 75 percent of all immigrants in Russia hail from former Soviet republics, and many others come from countries with strong traditional ties to Moscow such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. About 3 million immigrants are believed to be in Russia illegally.
The money those immigrants send back to family members provides much-needed injections of funds for their homelands. Remittances from the 1 million Tajiks working in Moscow are estimated to make up 35 percent of Tajikistan’s total gross domestic product.
It’s a two-way trade-off. Immigrants provide cheap labor for Russian employers, noticeably during construction work for the Olympic Games in Sochi this year. A steep decline in Russia’s working-age population makes migrant labor essential for the country’s economy.
But the presence of large numbers of immigrants, many of whom speak Russian poorly, has stoked social unrest.
Crime has played a large role in increasing tensions. Police investigators said immigrants were responsible for about 20 percent of all homicides in Moscow last year and just over 40 percent of all rapes.
In one of many similar incidents, a mob chanting “Russia for Russians” and “White power” marched through a south Moscow district in October 2013 after an Azerbaijani immigrant killed a young man. In another incident, rioters stormed into a market where a large number of immigrants are employed.
In a sign of the Russian government’s nervousness about rising nationalism, police locked down the area around the Kremlin as scattered disorder continued for days.
Russian authorities responded to the rioting by rounding up, apparently at random, thousands of immigrants — many of whom possessed work permits and the right to reside in Russia — and incarcerated them in a makeshift tent camp in Moscow. Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, described conditions at the tent camp as “inhuman.”
With about 50 percent of all Russians professing nationalist and anti-immigration views in opinion polls, calls for the introduction of a visa regime with former Soviet republics have been growing. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has opposed such a move.
“A visa regime would mean that we are pushing former Soviet republics away,” Mr. Putin said last year. “But we need to bring them closer.”
Mr. Putin’s stance has been criticized by opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny, who led massive anti-Kremlin protests in 2011 and 2012. (The opposition leader is under house arrest as he awaits trial on disputed fraud charges.)
“I don’t know why I need a visa for France or Germany, whereas any citizen of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can buy a one-way ticket and come here [to Russia],” Mr. Navalny said in a debate ahead of last year’s Moscow mayoral elections.
But Mukhamad Amin Madzhumder, head of the Russian Federation of Migrants, believes that scrapping visa-free agreements with former Soviet republics in Central Asia is unworkable.
“Firstly, there are already millions of immigrants from these countries in Russia,” he said. “Secondly, Russia’s borders with the Central Asia republics are so huge that they are almost impossible to control.”
Immigrants throughout Russia frequently complain of “slavelike” labor conditions. Reports say Tajiks and other “guest workers” from Central Asia often are forced to work without pay by employers who take away their passports and keep them under guard.
Rumors circulated online and in Russian media this month that 100,000 immigrants were planning to protest in the streets of Moscow.
Relations are tense in Moscow and other large cities between ethnic Russians and “internal migrants” from mainly Muslim republics such as Chechnya, in the volatile North Caucasus region.
Last summer, residents of a small town in southern Russia blocked a highway and demanded that authorities expel Chechens living there after a 16-year-old Chechen was charged with killing an off-duty soldier in a brawl.
Along with the south Moscow nationalist riots in October, these were the most serious race-related disturbances in Russia since late 2010, when about 5,000 people rioted in Moscow after an ethnic Russian soccer fan was killed by a group of youths from the North Caucasus region. President Dmitry Medvedev at the time called nationalist tensions “a threat to the very stability of Russia.”