Monday, February 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Immigrant Murders ‘Killing’ Russia’s Prestige in ‘Near Abroad’

Paul Goble

Baku, February 18 – A string of murders of Kyrgyz workers in Russia has led a youth group in Kyrgyzstan to issue an open letter of protest to President Vladimir Putin, the latest indication one Russian news service analyst says that these deaths are “killing the prestige of Russia” in neighboring countries.
In an article at the end of last week, Sanobar Shermatova, a member of the experts council of the Novosti news agency, discussed the letter the “Zhebe” Youth Movement had put out and what the attitudes it reflects mean for relations between Russia and its neighbors (
Attacks on Kyrgyz workers in Russian cities have become so frequent and so lethal, she reports, that Bishkek news outlets recently were forced to deny rumors that the Kyrgyz embassy in Moscow had sent the family members of its diplomats home for their own security.
In the wake of those rumors, made worse when the Kyrgyz government acknowledged that it had protested to the Russian foreign ministry about the lack of security for Kyrgyz representatives in Moscow, the “Zhebe” Youth Movement decided on its own to put out an open letter to Putin.
Unlike the government’s note which was cast in diplomatic language, the Zhebe letter used far sharper language. “As the commander of chief of your country, you cannot fail to know,” the letter addressed itself to Putin, that there have be “hundreds and thousands” of victims of such violence.
And that sharpness, Shermatova says, is precisely the point. For a variety of reasons, the Kyrgyz have long been one of the most pro-Russian peoples of the former Soviet space, an attitude that has imposed constraints on how far their government can go in developing closer ties with other powers.
Given that Russia is pursing “a struggle for the preservation of its influence” in Central Asia, this shift in popular attitudes cannot fail to be a matter of concern, although it should not come as a surprise, she says, because “daily” murders and beatings of Kyrgyz immigrants in Russia “cannot fail to make normal people angry.”
Moscow must face up to the fact that its policy goals in the region and the actions of its own people at home “contradict” one another, not only in Kyrgyzstan but across the entire region, she writes. Indeed, according to Tajik organizations in Moscow, some 200 caskets had to be sent to Tajikistan alone last year.
At one level, Shermatova continues, this letter of a youth movement “will not have an impact on big politics.” But “it sends a signal about the processes” which are taking place in all the countries of the former Soviet space whose citizens are travelling to the Russian Federation to life and work.
First of all, it says that people in these countries will be less and less willing to send their workers to Russia, thus making it more difficult for Moscow to rely on them to address the demographic problems of the Russian nation. Moreover, it suggests that their governments will be ever less willing to view Russia as a friend and partner. And finally, it means that both may be more interested in cooperating with Russia’s competitors.
In the past, Kyrgyzstan insisted that the United States pay a great deal of money for the base it used on Kyrgyz territory, but more recently, it has been willing to allow Russia to use a base there at not charge, a reflection of its positive feelings toward Moscow and the Russian people.
But just as the skinheads are killing Central Asian workers in Russia so to Moscow is doing nothing to prevent the killing of the image of Russia in that region. To date, this has not been a huge problem: “Russia is still able to draw on the capital built up in the times of the Soviet Union.”
But Shermatova in conclusion poses the question: “how much longer will this last” if the mistreatment and murders of Kyrgyz and other Central Asian workers in Moscow and other Russian cities continue unabated and the Russian government does not move forcefully to stop this tragedy?

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