Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Builds Ghetto for Gastarbeiters as Russians Debate Whether They Can Be Integrated

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 10 – Moscow commentators have long insisted that Russia will not face the kind of ethno-religious clashes that have taken place in Paris and other European cities because there are not any ethnically or religiously homogenous neighborhoods in most Russian cities.
But now given its growing need for immigrant workers to make up for the demographic decline of the Russian nation, Moscow companies, with the support of the city government, are building apartment blocks and even entire city districts for migrants, a step that may produce precisely the problems Russians have largely avoided up to now.
Moreover, as the basic source of new migrant workers shifts from the Caucasus, where most people know some Russian, to Central Asia, China and other eastern countries, where few now do, the likelihood that gastarbeiters living in such ethnically or religiously homogenous areas will acculturate or integrate into Russian life appears likely to decline.
And at least one Russian demographer argues that the likelihood of serious ethnic clashes is likely to increase, something he suggests in the short term can be avoided only by seeking the repatriation of ethnic Russians instead of the immigration of other groups and in the long term by changing the demographic behavior of ethnic Russians.
Yesterday, “Rossiiskaya gazeta” reported on the efforts of major companies, with the support of the Moscow city government, to build special housing blocks and even entire districts for migrants so that they will look past the city’s anti-immigrant image and be willing to come and work there (
One of the chief attractions of these regions, the paper said, includes “hotels of a simplified type” where temporary migrants will not have to pay rent but will have access to a full range of services while living among others from the regions and countries from which they have come.
Some Muscovites may be pleased by this development – it will perhaps ensure the continued influx of needed workers – but others are already expressing concern that precisely this concentration of migrants, especially as those arriving now are more culturally distant from the ethnic Russians than earlier waves and thus more likely to provoke “a clash of civilizations.”
Igor Beloborodov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Demographic Research, is among those expressing these concerns in the strongest terms. And in a recent interview, he argued that Russia would not be able to integrate the new arrivals and that more interethnic clashes were likely (
While stressing that Russia’s problems in this regard were far from unique, Beloborodov gave three reasons for that conclusion and suggested two ways, one short-term and the other longer term, that Moscow should proceed if it wants to avoid the kind of problems other states have had to face.
First, he said, the number of working age Russians is going to continue to fall for at least the next two decades, with the decline in the next five years twice that of the decline in the past five. As a result, Russian companies have no choice but to attract more foreign workers now because they do lack the time to move to more to less labor-intensive operations.
Second, in many places in Russia, especially in its major cities, the share of migrant workers has already passed what sociologists call the tipping point of 10 to 12 percent. Once that happens, Beloborodov said, clashes become more likely especially if the migrants live in compact areas.
And third, now and in the future, most of the migrants are going to come not from the Caucasus where many people know some Russian but from Central Asia and China where they do not. As a result, the new wave of migrants will be less able to adapt and more likely to find itself at odds with the dominant ethnic Russian community.
According to the Moscow demographer, the Russian government should in the short term try to promote the repatriation of ethnic Russians living abroad, although he acknowledges that such efforts up to now have not produced the results many had hoped for, and in the longer term, try to change Russian demographic behavior, an even greater challenge.
But for any of these things to happen and for Russia to avoid ethnic clashes, he continued, a key first step is to recognize that economics must not be the primary basis on which decisions are made. Preserving Russian culture is more important, something that many Moscow decision-makers clearly he implied do not recognize.

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