Xenophobia on the rise in Russia after Moscow concert attack
North Caspian Report No. 4 (24 March 2024)
Dor Shabashewitz
Journalists and analysts from around the world are actively discussing the potential consequences of the Crocus City Hall attack which killed over 130 people at a concert venue in Moscow suburbs on March 22. Most discussions revolve around the political implications of the terrorist attack. Many claim that Russia may use it as a pretext for launching another wave of mass mobilization, closing the borders and increasing the scale and intensity of attacks on Ukraine. Whichever political measures Russia’s government chooses to take, they are likely to be announced on Monday, March 25.

An overlooked but equally important consequence of the attack is one that can already be observed: a nationwide spike in xenophobic attitudes and incidents. On March 23, Russian media outlets began spreading photographs of men allegedly wanted for taking part in the mass shooting — сuriously, all of them Tajik. Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that none of them were in or near Moscow at the time terrorists attacked the concert venue: two of the alleged suspects returned from Russia to Tajikistan in November 2023, and one was having dinner with his family in Samara during the shooting.

Although the original suspicions turned out to be false, they were enough for pro-government media personalities and Russian ethno-nationalist groups to launch a massive xenophobic campaign against Tajiks. It only got stronger when the authorities announced that they did arrest four other suspects, proudly and shamelessly torturing one of them by cutting off his ear and forcing him to eat it on camera.

The popular Telegram blog 112, which has a reputation for posting police leaks, reported that all of them were naturalized Russian citizens of immigrant background from Central Asia. Later, official sources wrote that they were not, in fact, Russian citizens, but this did not help stop the anti-immigrant and anti-naturalization campaign.

Nikolai Sevostianov, a pro-government political commentator, wrote an op-ed for the blog of the pro-Russian war correspondent Yuri Kotenok, calling Muslim labor immigrants “an enemy army in our own cities” and saying that immigration is a threat to the very existence of Russia as a state. This op-ed was shared by the Russia Today journalist Roman Antonovsky.

Other right-wing bloggers called for the deportation of all Tajik citizens from Russia or suggested that they should be sent to fight in Ukraine. A YouTube channel called “Beautiful Russia” published a video entitled “Tajik terrorists are waiting for an order in each Russian city”. It has gathered over 1.5 million views in less than a day.

Eventually, several pro-government news outlets such as Readovka began pushing a different narrative, sending the message that “not all Tajiks are terrorists” and “distrubing the interethnic harmony in Russia and making us hate each other is the goal of our real enemies, Ukraine and the West”.

As is evident from what has followed, this did not help change the increasingly xenophobic attitudes of the general public. Moreover, many Russian nationalists have criticized Readovka for allegedly becoming “a Tajik media outlet” and not serving the interests of its predominantly Russian readership.

Tajik activist Saidanvar Sulaymonov reported that immigrant drivers working for taxi apps in major Russian cities shared screenshots of messages from their clients: “What is your ethnicity? If you are Tajik, cancel my ride or I will call the police and ask them to check your papers.”

Sulaymonov also published voice messages from local government employees who coordinate the work of immigrant street cleaners in Moscow. In these messages, they asked their Tajik and Uzbek subordinates to not go outside on March 24 because “there will be massive police raids on the day of mourning, targeting everyone from these countries”.

Twitter user anyasnorochka who works at a coffee shop in Moscow wrote that at least on two occasions, clients verbally harassed her Tajik colleague, a barista, unpromptedly telling him that “you all [Tajiks] are the same [terrorists]”.

On March 23, the Free Nations League, an association of secessionist movements representing various indigenous peoples of Russia, published a statement calling for solidarity with Central Asian immigrants. They described Tajik and Uzbek labor immigrants as one of the most discriminated against social groups in Russia and warned that increased xenophobia against them is more than likely to escalate into increased xenophobia against all non-Slavic people, including members of indigenous ethnic groups who are Russian citizens by birth.

Their concerns turned out to be warranted even earlier than expected. Later on the very same day, the police raided cheap hostels in Volgograd, a city in the broader North Capsian — Lower Volga region, allegedly looking for Central Asian immigrants. As reported by the local media outlet V1, at least one of these hostels housed Dagestanis rather than foreigners, but this did not prevent the police from harassing its residents.

Xenophobia has been a significant problem in the Russian society for decades. In fact, it is often cited as one of the reasons for ethnic minority activists to demand independece. Today, many expect the situation to become even worse, both on the everyday level and institutionally, as the MP Mikhail Sheremet from illegally occupied Crimea has already suggested that Russia cracks down on migration.

We at the North Caspian Institute will be monitoring the situation closely and reporting on how the increase in xenophobic attitudes and incidents affects both locals and immigrants in our primary regions of focus.

Update (25 March 2024, 01:14 UTC+4). Another case of discrimination against Central Asians in Russia has been reported by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. On March 23, a group of Kyrgyz citizens were detained upon arrival in one of Moscow’s airports. One of them managed to contact journalists and told them that Russian border guards were not letting Kyrgyzstanis enter the country and held them in a small room for over a day. Those who had the money to buy a ticket back to Kyrgyzstan have already left. He added that there were Tajik and Ukrainian citizens in a similar situation in the airport, and some of them were reportedly beaten up by border guards.

Update (26 March 2024, 17:56 UTC+4). On March 25, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned the country’s citizens against unnecessary trips to Russia, and Tajikistan’s embassy in Moscow urged Tajiks currently in Russia to avoid crowded places. Russian lawyer and human rights activist Valentina Chupik told journalists that over 2,500 immigrants have contacted her over the past few days regarding cases of discrimination, a half of them being unsubstantiated detentions by the police.

Update (26 March 2024, 21:30 UTC+4). According to TRT, a 34-year-old man from Shchyolkovo, Moscow Oblast, attacked two young immigrants with a knife at a local PC gaming club, yelling “death to the non-Russians”.
Dor Shabashewitz is a co-founder of the North Caspian Institute. He is a journalist and political analyst covering ethnic minority rights, migration and secessionist movements in Russia and Central Asia. Exiled from Astrakhan in 2021 by the Russian Federal Security Service for his journalistic work and activism, he is currently splitting time between Israel and Armenia and working remotely as a contributor to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service.
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