Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened Moscow’s first detention camp for illegal immigrants as migrants become the main concern among voters preparing for the city’s first mayoral election since 2003.
The tarpaulin tents for 600 people, surrounded by an eight-meter (26 feet) fence, signal the campaign for the Sept. 8 vote heating up as Putin seeks to show that he’s in control of Europe’s largest city, the center of Russia’s opposition. His protege, acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, is pulling out all the stops to beat challengers including protest leader Alexei Navalny and show the world the Kremlin’s dominance.
As the Russian economy grows at the slowest pace since a 2009 recession, Moscow has become the main battlefield between Putin, who last year returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president, and his opponents. Tens of thousands turned out for anti-government rallies, the biggest against the Russian leader’s 13-year rule, with Navalny among the organizers.
“The Kremlin needs a rematch here in order to strengthen its power,” said Valery Fedorov, head of the state-run VTsIOM research center in Moscow. “Muscovites see migrants as a threat. Politicians make use of that.”
While the city upgraded Moscow’s highways, rebuilt major parks and introduced a rent-a-bike network, the focus has shifted to migrants as the campaign enters its stretch run. That’s the biggest concern for 44 percent of Muscovites, according a July 12-23 poll of 1,500 people by the Public Opinion Foundation. The results have a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
Officers have detained at least 5,750 migrant workers from the Caucasus, central Asia and nations including Vietnam since the end of July in what Sobyanin says is a drive to clean up markets and rid the city of criminal gangs. More than 2,000 migrants have been rounded up in the rest of the country, according to the Interior Ministry. The government is drafting a plan to create a network of 83 detention centers across Russia.
Sobyanin, 55, is a rising star in Russian politics, and running Moscow can serve as a catapult to the highest echelons of power, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who heads the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow.
Illegal immigration gives Sobyanin “low-hanging fruit” to showcase his populist credentials, said Alexander Verkhovsky who studies xenophobia in Russia at the SOVA center in Moscow. Sobyanin has 53 percent backing, compared with 9 percent for Navalny, according to a survey of 1,200 people conducted Aug. 8-10 by VTsIOM. The poll had a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.
Moscow, the biggest city in the former Soviet Union, is a magnet for all Russian speakers seeking a better life and improved job prospects, which leads to tension with Muscovites. While Russian citizens from the North Caucasus to Kamchatka are legally able to stay as long as they want, police go after those arriving from other former Soviet republics.
The city attracts most of the 11 million immigrants in Russia, 3.5 million of them probably illegal, Konstantin Romodanovsky, head of the Federal Migration Service, told reporters in Moscow July 30.
Migrants were responsible for more than half of the crimes committed in the Russian capital last year, according to Moscow police chief Anatoly Yakunin. One-third of them are foreigners, with the rest from other Russian regions, according to his statement on city police’s website.
The figures are a rare example of government statistics accepted by Navalny. He has backed anti-immigrant protesters across the country and the tone he strikes on the issue chimes with Sobyanin’s.
“If we strip migrants’ crimes -- not only international but domestic too -- Moscow would be the safest city in the world,” Sobyanin told the Vedomosti newspaper Aug. 7.
A week earlier, Navalny said his model was Cheboksary, 661 kilometers (410 miles) to the east, which he called “squeaky clean, without a single migrant,” according to a video of a speech he made there and posted on YouTube.
“I probably have the toughest position toward migrants among all candidates,” Navalny said during an Aug. 12 television debate that was boycotted by Sobyanin. “I don’t understand why I need a visa to visit Europe, but Kyrgyz or Tajik citizens, even those without passports, can just buy a single ticket and come here.”
Navalny accuses municipal authorities of employing migrants as street cleaners and plumbers to pocket as much as half of their wages. He proposed a ban on migrant labor at state agencies, including for contractors who employ them.
Sobyanin’s spokeswoman Gulnara Penkova declined to comment. Andrei Tsybin, who oversees utilities in the mayor’s office, couldn’t be reached during regular business hours.
Sobyanin has targeted Moscow’s open-air markets, which sell everything from bricks to cheap socks and freshly made soba noodles, and where vendors are traditionally migrants from across the former Soviet territories and beyond.
Each of the markets shut down since 2011 generated several hundred million dollars in annual revenue, Sobyanin told Vedomosti. Fifty-one of those markets remain in the city, compared with 79 two years ago, according to Alexei Nemeryuk, who oversees them at City Hall.
“I should be sleeping in a bulletproof jacket,” Sobyanin said.
Police have stepped up their raids since July 27, when Anton Kudryashov, a criminal investigator, was assaulted during an attempted arrest of a Dagestani man at a market. Two days later, Sobyanin visited him in the hospital and pledged to crack down on illegal immigration. By that time, police had rounded up 1,030 people.
While the attacker was a Russian citizen from the North Caucasus, the campaign also encompassed international immigrants. On July 31, officers detained 1,200 illegal migrants from Vietnam employed at a textile factory.
Russia’s more than 10 million migrants account for at least 6 percent of economic output, Romodanovsky said in an interview. Pressuring arrivals from the North Caucasus threatens to push them back to the impoverished region where Russia has been struggling to stamp out an insurgency. Two brothers from that region are the suspects in the April Boston Marathon bombing.
While the Vietnamese camp may help Sobyanin get some votes, it leaves the main problem unsolved, said Alexander Verkhovsky. The main irritants for Muscovites are migrants from the North Caucasus and central Asians come next, he said.
“People are angry with North Caucasus migrants, who are the most hated group, because they are seen as being too quick to use weapons, more violent in street fights and less respectful toward women from other groups,” Verkhovsky said.
The majority of illegal immigrants are from central Asia, where Putin is seeking to increase Russia’s influence, Yuliya Florinskaya, who studies migration at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said by phone. The region was the recipient of more than half of the $20.1 billion in remittances from Russia last year, with the total almost doubling since 2010, according to the central bank in Moscow.
“It all started with a policeman injured by a Dagestani and ended with a camp full of Vietnamese,” Florinskaya said. “Migration is the first topic during elections.”