Putin's federal government has done little to stop a policy that activists denounce as "ethnic cleansing."
More Racism in Russia
13 June 2002
The Washington Post
Susan B. Glasser
The firstborn son of Vali Umarov lies dying on his parents' bed. Rahim is 5 months old, but he can hardly even cry out in pain. A huge brain tumor -- almost half the size of his tiny head -- protrudes from his skull. Doctors in Moscow have promised to operate, for free.
But Umarov cannot take his son to the faraway capital. An ethnic Turk who has lived here since fleeing Central Asia in the waning days of the Soviet Union, he is not a citizen of Russia and has no official permission to live here. The way things work in the southern region of Krasnodar, he has no legal right to work or drive a car. Even his marriage is not recognized. "We are afraid all the time," he said. "We are afraid even to go outside; we will never make it to Moscow to save our son."
When he drove Rahim to a doctor in the nearby provincial capital last month, Umarov said, police stopped him at a checkpoint, pushed his wife as she held the baby in her arms, and detained him for hours until he paid a bribe. These days, he says, he is afraid to go to the tomato fields that provide the family's only income; local police have started rounding up migrants there and arresting those whose paperwork isn't in order.
More problems loom. Under a law passed this spring by the fervently anti-migrant administration of Krasnodar, Umarov and hundreds of thousands of other Krasnodar residents displaced by the breakup of the Soviet empire a decade ago face the threat of deportation, even if they have nowhere else to go. Like Umarov, most of them are dark-skinned non-Russians.
"It's the 21st century, and they want to deport people on the basis of ethnicity," said Sarvar Tedorov, leader of a Turkish human rights group here. "They are persecuting us so we will be forced to leave."
The town of Varenikovskaya, home to about 500 Turks among a population of 16,000, has become an unhappy flash point in the increasingly acute ethnic tensions erupting around Russia. For years, nationalist politicians across the country have stoked hatred of those who are not ethnic Russians, blaming unwanted migrants for such ills as increased crime and the advent of AIDS. In cities such as Moscow, skinhead violence against dark-skinned outsiders has become so common that President Vladimir Putin recently spoke out against it and called for a new law to combat extremism.
But nowhere have the ethnic tensions been more divisive than in the region around Varenikovskaya, a rich agricultural territory in Russia's temperate south just a short drive from the country's famous Black Sea resorts.
While other nationalists spend their time inveighing against migrants, Krasnodar Gov. Alexander Tkachev, who won election in December 2000 on an openly nationalist platform, has brought the full arsenal of the state's powers to bear against them. He asserts that Krasnodar has been overwhelmed by an influx of as many as 1 million newcomers in a region of 5 million residents. Opponents dispute the number, but all agree that hundreds of thousands have arrived here since the Soviet Union's breakup. Armenians are the largest single group.
In March, Tkachev authorized police and paramilitary groups of Cossacks, who have figured prominently in his campaign, to conduct Operation Foreigner, aimed at identifying and fining thousands of allegedly illegal migrants. In April, the new anti-immigration law took effect. It calls for huge fines, immediate deportation of illegal migrants and the creation of deportation centers near Krasnodar's borders.
"Our goal is to make clear to all illegal immigrants that Russia is not a revolving door," Tkachev was quoted as saying at a conference on the migrant problem. He also raised the idea of chartering planes to transport migrants back to Central Asia or the Caucasus and, most pointedly, suggested that authorities should crack down on all those living in Krasnodar with non-Russian last names -- a statement he now denies making.
"There is a blatant violation of human rights here," said Vladimir Kozlov, local representative for the Russian human rights group Memorial. "While the previous governor only talked, now they've started trying to translate these words into action. They're trying to legalize their attacks on migrants with this new law, and meantime the federal center is silent."
Indeed, Putin's federal government has done little to stop Tkachev from pursuing a policy that activists denounce as "ethnic cleansing." Officials in Moscow say Tkachev's new law is illegal, because it usurps the power of the central government to regulate immigration. But they have not stepped in to stop any of the alleged human rights abuses in the territory, and Putin himself has been silent about Krasnodar.
"Federal laws are supreme over laws in provinces, and we will act accordingly," said Vladimir Zorin, Putin's minister for nationalities. But in an interview, Zorin also professed sympathy for Tkachev. "Don't assume he's a chauvinist," Zorin admonished, declaring that migrants in Russia are responsible for increased criminal activity, drug trafficking and terrorism.
Zorin invoked the ethnic violence of the late 1990s in Kosovo when warning of what could happen if Russia does not move quickly to regulate immigration. "This migration over the last 10 years has disturbed the ethnic balance of the country," he said. "Let's remember the disturbance of ethnic balance in Kosovo, and what was the outcome there."
Here in Krasnodar, Vladimir Gromov recently offered a similar warning. "If the federal center doesn't do something soon, we'll get Kosovo, all right," said Gromov, the gray-bearded ataman, or leader, of the region's Cossacks. "If this mess continues, yes, we'll end up with violence. People don't have much more patience."
Descendants of the fierce fighters who once guarded the imperial borders of czarist Russia, today's Cossacks under Gromov see themselves as protectors of the ethnic purity of the territory given to them more than 200 years ago by Catherine the Great. Local authorities have granted them quasi-military status to take part in the anti-immigrant campaign.
"We are the native people here," he said, "and these people coming here violates my rights. They have settled in our territory, and they should leave."
Gromov has a list of anti-immigrant complaints, from their supposed "aggressive behavior" to the alleged failure of their children to learn Russian. At times, his racist views were apparent. Defending a wave of attacks blamed on skinheads in Moscow, for example, he said: "You have to understand, people were driven to this. There are black people in Moscow all over the place. If you spit, you will hit a black person there."
In effect, the Cossacks in Krasnodar serve as a shadow police force, working closely with the official police on operations designed to catch migrants without proper papers and force them to leave. At times, according to human rights investigators, Cossacks' tactics range from harassment to outright violence and extortion.
Gromov said there are more than 280 Cossack "vigilante groups," totaling about 5,200 people, working on what he called "public security." In April, Gromov said, reading from a police letter, nearly 500 Cossacks took part in a sweep that turned up 29 "serious crimes," 380 violations of visa and passport rules and 120 "small-scale violations." Thousands of people were questioned, he said, and hundreds of fines were levied.
In the villages where the Cossacks routinely conduct sweeps with local authorities, there is a name for such operations. It is the same name used to describe the widely criticized roundups of civilians by Russian soldiers in the rebellious region of Chechnya -- zachistki, or cleanups. "These are basically the same zachistki that we have in Chechnya," said Memorial's Kozlov. "There is no legal basis for the Cossacks to participate in such operations."
Local officials acknowledge that the Cossacks participate in such raids precisely because of their vehemently anti-migrant stance. "They are present in order to make the process of detecting illegal migrants more effective," said Murat Akhedzhak, chief spokesman for the governor. "They make sure bureaucrats don't hide illegal migrants."
In Varenikovskaya, Sarvar Tedorov is an impassioned storehouse of complaints against such tactics. Sitting in the tiny, dilapidated cottage where he has lived since 1989, Tedorov has an encyclopedic memory for the dates and details of the indignities suffered by his fellow Turks currently and in decades past.
In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered them loaded into boxcars and sent away from their homeland in the Meskhetia region of Georgia. Thirteen years ago, they left their Central Asian exile when a wave of anti-Turk ethnic violence broke out there. Now, they are marooned in Krasnodar by the breakup of the Soviet Union; Georgia, which regained its independence in 1991, has yet to make the legal provisions for their return.
"It's unbelievable," fumed Tedorov. "How many times can one people be deported?"
His tour of Varenikovskaya's hidden Turkish side is a bleak trip into poverty and powerlessness. In a tomato field near the town, several dozen Turks were rounded up last month and held for hours by police; 38 had their passports confiscated. "They were telling us to go away; 'we don't want you here,' " said Malut Gafurov. "They said we had no right to work; we are foreigners."
In a nearby house, Mavluda Shakhmamedova cried quietly as she recounted a recent encounter with authorities. On March 3, four camouflage-clad militiamen came to her house, demanding either her television set or a fine she could not afford to pay. She screamed and pleaded, and her terrified son locked himself inside the house. Eventually, militia officers broke the lock with a crowbar.
Her crime, like that of the other Turks in Varenikovskaya, was that the local authorities do not consider her a citizen of Russia. But like the others here, Shakhmamedova was a Soviet citizen at the time she arrived in Krasnodar, and legal experts contend that as such the Turks here should have been granted Russian citizenship when the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. Everywhere else in Russia, they were.
"For 13 years, things have been steadily deteriorating for us here," Shakhmamedova said. "It's an experiment in how much we can bear."