Vienna, August 11 – The Russian government agency which oversees the media warned news outlets today not to allow their coverage of Georgian events to include anything likely to exacerbate ethnic or religious tensions, a clear indication that Moscow is worried that the war may spark new clashes between Russian and non-Russian groups within the Russian Federation.
This morning, the Federal Service for Supervision of the Media and Mass Communications “in connection with the events in South Ossetia” called on Russian media to “observer the law and no allow the dissemination of materials” likely to spark ethnic or religious clashes (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=25973).
So far in the four-day-old conflict, there have been relatively few such clashes within the Russian Federation reported, and many of the organizations representing immigrant groups have gone out of their way either to openly support Russian actions in Georgia, to express their hope that the conflict will end soon, or to call on their members avoid doing anything provocatory.
But if relative peace reins so far, the Russian government has good reason to be concerned. On the one hand, the Russian media is filled with articles that would certainly violate the laws about not disseminating materials suggesting that one ethnic group is superior to another and that members of the latter should either leave or humble themselves as a result.
And on the other, the number of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia in the Russian Federation is large – perhaps something more than 10 million – concentrated in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, and actively disliked by a majority of Russians, according to recent polls.
Particularly at risk of any upsurge in anti-immigrant attitudes and actions as a result of the war in Georgia are first and foremost the roughly one million ethnic Georgians who now live and work in the Russian Federation and whose transfer payments home have helped keep the Georgian economy afloat.
Russian officials almost certainly will work to prevent further cash transfers by Georgians, and many Russian employers are likely to view the current crisis as the occasion either for squeezing the Georgian gastarbeiters further or even firing them outright, actions that could trigger more problems ahead.
But in addition to the Georgians, there are more than two million ethnic Azerbaijanis, several million people from Central Asia, and hundreds of thousands of “people of Caucasus nationality,” the ugly term of art which Russian officials and anti-immigrant groups have employed since 1993.
And if the Russian aggression spreads to Ukraine as many Russian media outlets are suggesting, that could trigger a worsening of relations between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians, whose exact number in the Russian Federation is unknown – the 2002 Russian census cannot be relied on – but is certainly even larger than the number of Azerbaijanis.
On the one hand, these groups are a kind of hostage in any conflict between Moscow and the countries around the Russian Federation and a weapon that Moscow may try to use against these countries by restricting immigration or the transfer of the earnings of such migrants to their homelands.
But on the other, as the Moscow announcement today makes clear, they are also a problem for the Russian government, one that its own increasingly nationalistic rhetoric is transforming from something manageable into something that may try the ability of the authorities to maintain control -- and at the very least will give Russia yet another black eye.