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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From the Caucasus To Moscow

Human rights activists call it "a hunt." Government officials call it law enforcement. Whatever the case, life is increasingly difficult, even dangerous, for Moscow's Caucasians.

Ibrahim, a polite 24-year-old fruit and vegetable trader at the Butyrsky market, doesn't much like the way he is treated in Moscow.

"Police'll stop me five, ten times a day, sometimes, to check my documents," said the handsome Azerbaijani, who, like most traders, refused to give his real name.

"Even though I have a registration, it's still a hassle -- especially when I don't shave," he said, standing over the apricots and tomatoes he buys off the trains from Azerbaijan and then sells on a thin margin. "When I didn't have registration, I'd try to cross the street or even turn around and take a detour when I'd see police. Sometimes I still feel I should do that, even though I haven't done anything and everything's in order."

Ibrahim first left his native Salyan, roughly 100 kilometers south of the Azeri capital Baku, four years ago against the protests of his parents, both retirees who, Ibrahim said, now receive the equivalent of a $4 monthly pension. His three brothers all work for the Azeri government and get paid the equivalent of $10 a month, and even that, like in most of the former Soviet Union, is often delayed for months at a time.

"You can't make money working there, not real money, anyway," Ibrahim said, conservatively putting his average monthly profit at 1.5 million rubles ($259). With the 450,000 rubles he pays for an apartment he shares with an elderly landlady, this hardly looks like much money, but it is 30 times more than his brothers make, and is sometimes enough for him to bring money back home, where he returns about every three months.

As Ibrahim related the story of how he ended up in Moscow, a respectably dressed and well-spoken Russian woman came up to buy tomatoes. Fearing Ibrahim's scale was inaccurate, she asked him to weigh the tomatoes on a neighboring one. When he refused to do this, -- because, as he later explained, the other vendors didn't like it -- the woman exploded, focusing her outrage on Ibrahim's use of the familiar ty (you) form of address.

"Why 'ty'?" she yelled. "You are guests here. How dare you? This is our city, and you are the guests here." And she walked off.

Ibrahim's expression beneath his carefully trimmed mustache showed little but amusement. "Is this any way to make a living?" he asked. "To get up early and work late and in between to get insulted by everyone. Is that any way to make a living?"

Russia has always had a difficult and sometimes brutal relationship with the ancient tribes of the Caucasus region, which it has alternately tried to conquer, colonize, and integrate. But the economic ruin and inter-ethnic wars of the past eight years led to a colossal demographic shift that has brought to Moscow alone as many as a million distinctly non-Slavic people from the southern regions of the former Soviet Union. By all indications, they have not been well met.

Human rights activists charge that the Russian government has carried out an ill-disguised racist campaign demonizing the refugees and traders. Stories abound of beatings along with more mundane discrimination in realms ranging from housing to employment. The most common form -- document checks -- is plain for any Muscovite to see on a daily basis.

A month ago, Mayor Yury Luzhkov requested that the Federal Migration Service rid municipal hotels of "illegal refugees." Human rights activists, who say it is all part of a cleanup campaign for the city's 850th anniversary, fear that the mayor's move has sanctioned, in effect, a new wave of harassment by police. Some seasoned Muscovites compare it to the preparations for the 1980 Olympics, when prostitutes and the homeless were evacuated from the capital.

"It's not a trap anymore," said Svetlana Gannushkina, an activist with the Moscow-based Civil Assistance Group, which aids refugees. "It's a hunt."

Authorities counter that they are merely enforcing the laws.

"We're tired of explaining that we are not out to harass Caucasians," said Interior Ministry spokesman Vladimir Vershkov. "The same number of Ukrainians and Belarussians are stopped as Caucasians. It's just when a Caucasian gets stopped, they turn it into a huge scandal. It's become a very fashionable theme, especially with the diaspora representatives in the mass media."

It is Moscow's residence registration regime which provides the legal justification for OMON riot troopers' raids on markets and the more frequent document checks on the streets. Although the old Soviet propiska system has been declared unconstitutional, all new settlers in Moscow are still required to register with police. This should be automatic but Moscow has erected bureaucratic obstacles. As a result many immigrants are afraid or unable to register. This gives institutional racism an added legal dimension not present in many other countries, said Rachel Denber, the former director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch.

According to the group's 1995 report, those stopped under suspicion of violating registration rules are predominantly dark-skinned. If something is awry with a detainee's documents, he will be forced to pay a "fine," either on the spot or at the militia station, the report stated.

Sometimes the consequences are much more dire, as was the case recently with Akhmed Idrisov, a slight, 48-year-old Chechen, who gave an account of his encounter with three plainclothes militiamen in eastern Moscow one April night about 10 p.m. "They saw in my passport that I was Chechen and didn't have registration, handcuffed me, and took me to the station and then into this upstairs room and started beating me with their batons," Idrisov recalled two weeks later when the bruises on his side were almost healed. "I was holding my hands up like this to protect myself, and they only got me good on the left side, because they were righties, I guess. They told me to admit that I'm a terrorist, confess why I'm in Moscow, and to give them 3 million rubles."

Idrisov said he was released paying 650,000 rubles; he is thinking of filing a complaint, but fears that since he is not properly registered, it will only lead to further trouble.

Yury Sharagorov, deputy head of the federal passport department in Moscow, cites crime patterns in support of the registration requirements. Indeed, Sharagorov's figures do indicate that in the first four months of this year, non-Muscovites committed a third of the city's crimes. But, because there are no reliable figures on the number of non-Muscovites living in the city it is impossible to calculate the relative criminality of out-of-towners, which, of course, include ethnic Russians registered in other cities.

Figures compiled by the Azeri Embassy alone indicate that on any given day between 600,000 and 700,000 Azeris are in Moscow, according to spokesman Farhad Agamaliev. That's up from 40,000 Azeris before the beginning of Perestroika. The Georgian Embassy gives a figure of between 10,000 and 15,000 refugees from that former Soviet republic. Add to that an estimated 75,000 refugees from Chechnya and taking into account Caucasians from other countries and within Russian and a figure of one million Caucasians in Moscow is not unreasonable.

Despite the lack of reliable figures showing what kind of people commit what crimes, respectable Russian media outlets publish headlines like "'Criminal Ethnics' Storm the Capital from Within," which appeared in an August 1996 edition of Segodnya.

Aside from defending the registration system itself, Sharagorov went on to say that it is only a "false impression" that skin tone plays a vital role in document checks. He made clear who was responsible for this disinformation.

"Human rights activists? Human rights activists!," Sharagorov said with disdain, going on to accuse them of spreading false accusations without any knowledge of the actual situation. For example, Sharagorov said, human rights monitors never mention that most violators of the registration rules are in fact Ukrainians at large construction sites.

"The police stop everyone," he added, and then proposed another theory for the perception that the police are racist and stop predominantly Caucasians. "It's more noticeable because there's more of them in restaurants, more of them in banks. You know, although we have a Russian government, I walk down the street sometimes and see more of them than I do Russians."

Human rights activists might be flattered at such attention from Sharagorov. Gannushkina, for one, has become highly versed in bureaucratic games in her work with refugees. Highly critical of Luzhkov's recent oral order to the federal migration service to clear Moscow of all "illegal refugees and migrants," Gannushkina points out that the refugees are illegal because Moscow has refused to register most of those coming to Moscow from the conflicts in the Caucasus.

"Luzhkov didn't even produce any documents," said Gannushkina.

A press officer in Luzhkov's office said that while the mayor may have made such a statement it was never intended to do anything more than evict refugees from city-owned hotels in accordance with existing law.

Gannushkina, who also teaches mathematics at Russian State Humanities University, has decided to battle the system's absurdities with her own. Her group, working out of the basement of a residential building in eastern Moscow, is flooded by refugees. They are searching for a magic letter.

"We give them a letter that says they are currently working with us and would the police be so kind as to render them all possible assistance," Gannushkina explained in the office as two female office workers produced new letters and approximately 50 refugees, mostly ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, crowded at the door. "It's official-looking, but it's not a legal document. It's simply a request. ... And you know, we live in a wonderful country. Sometimes, they actually help."

Also helpful are Gannushkina's phone calls to police stations. "I used to call up and ask about so-and-so, and they would say, 'Why, we've just released him,'" she said. "Every time they would say that. And I would call their family and they really were coming home soon after I'd called. I thought it was all a pretty strange coincidence, and then I realized that they were just releasing them right after I called."

At the Butyrsky market, Ibrahim speaks of such indignities as though they were perfectly natural. On an average of twice a day, militiamen conduct document checks of all the vendors at the market, Ibrahim said. Those found to have insufficient documentation are taken to the nearby station where they pay a standard 83,000-ruble fine and are released. Ibrahim noted this is much different than the way it used to be with militiamen levying fines -- or bribes as some maintain -- on the spot.

"They've gotten honest all of a sudden," said Ibrahim.

Over at the Interior Ministry, Vershkov denied there was any widespread bribe-taking or that residency laws lend themselves to abuse.

Aside from the daily visits from ordinary militiamen, there are the occasional raids by OMON riot troops. A month ago, for example, they arrived with a bus, placed Ibrahim and about 40 men against a wall, searched them, herded them into the bus and then to the police station. All this, Ibrahim said, despite the fact that many of the vendors had all the necessary documents.

"If you had all your documents, they made you pay 20,000 rubles anyway," Ibrahim said. "If you didn't, then you had to pay more." Reports varied, placing this figure at between 80,000 and 100,000. An Izvestia reporter who happened to be on the scene wrote that OMON troops were reacting to city-wide vegetable rackets.

Through all this, Ibrahim is making some money, and his 11 years of school don't fit him for much else in a part of the world where most of the factories sit eerily still. "What else can I do?" he said. "I could steal, I could become a racketeer, but that's not for me. I'm better off with my own little business."

The tense situation on the streets and markets, where police draw a clear picture of who is unwanted, belies a social system in which some Caucasians have done well. Thanks in part to Soviet internationalism, which introduced the rough equivalent of a quota system, and intermittent bursts of meritocracy, Caucasians have been -- and continue to be -- prominent in Russian culture. Many families who have been in Moscow for a long time would sooner identify themselves with the capital than their ethnicity.

But sociologists warn that Russian politics are turning more and more nationalistic and Russian society may follow suit. "While they used to convince people of their Sovietness, now they convince people of their Russianness," ethnologist Valentina Uzunova of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences said at a recent academic roundtable on post-Soviet Russian nationalism.

"All this is leading to the creation of an ethnocracy, where the priority of one ethnic group becomes the authorities' main concern," warned sociologist Rosanna Rybkina during the same roundtable.

For the time being, many ethnic groups seem to be holding their own. Umar Dzhabrailov, for example, is a Chechen and the general director of the Radisson-Slavjanskaya Hotel. He is quick to defend those who attack Mayor Luzhkov's human rights record.

"The mayor is the most objective person there is on the nationalities issue," Dzhabrailov, whose hotel is controlled by the city, said from his office in the former Lenin Historical Museum, from which he supervises the massive Manezh mall project.

Dzhabrailov came to Moscow from Chechnya in 1973 at the age of 15 to receive a technical education. A slim, immaculately dressed man who speaks fluent English and slightly Chechen-accented Russian, Dzhabrailov tells of his mother in bombed-out Grozny during the recent war giving food to the starving Russian soldiers stationed there. "That's just how she is, how our people are," he said.

Dzhabrailov sees no contradiction between being Chechen and working closely with Luzhkov. In fact, he blames the media for misconstruing Luzhkov's comments on the nationalities issues. He also blames the media, including The Moscow Times, for making him out to be a Chechen mafiosi. The mass-circulation Komsomolskaya Pravda recently suggested that the hotel be renamed the "Radisson Chechenskaya."

For some time, Dzhabrailov was embroiled in a highly publicized battle with American partner Paul Tatum, who was eventually fatally shot near the hotel last November. The dispute was bitter on both sides but the American was also not above playing the race card, not simply claiming that Dzhabrailov was a mafia kingpin, but that he was a Chechen one.

Dzhabrailov remembers the anti-Chechen hysteria in the early '90s which culminated in the invasion of Grozny in December 1994. But, he said, "I wouldn't like to think that there's someone sitting up there and programming [racism]."

Whatever its causes and ultimate goals, discrimination has a much more subtle and possibly more lasting effect than can be seen immediately on the streets. It involves the fragile psychology of a people.

One telling anecdote perhaps illustrates this point: Hussein was traveling with his wife and two small children on their way to Chechnya for the kids' summer vacation. "We used to have three houses but they all got bombed," he said. "The house we're going to used to have three stories, and now it has one."

"It's still a hell of a house," he said. "In the most prestigious neighborhood in Grozny, all the crooks and bandits live there." Hussein went on to give a lengthy account of his own criminal exploits.

But, behind this boasting was also reticence. Hussein's family all spoke fine Russian, but among themselves they spoke in Chechen. When asked what language they were speaking, the thick, blustering man momentarily hesitated, looking for signs of ill will. Then, in an almost embarrassed way that made the word stick -- barely perceptibly -- in his throat, he said: "Chechen."

The Chechens are an ancient people and intensely proud, and so, it was odd for this obviously successful and self-possessed man to announce his nationality with even a trace of apprehension. Asked if he were kidding, Hussein replied, "You think that's something to kid about? No, I'm not kidding."