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Racial Split Seen in Russian Politics

Times Staff Writer

On the television screen, three dark-skinned men from the Caucasus sit sullenly munching watermelon in a Moscow courtyard, then brazenly toss the chewed rinds into the path of a young blond woman pushing a baby carriage.

Two ethnic Russians glare at the watermelon thugs. “Clean it up,” one of them says menacingly.

The words “Let’s clean our city of trash” flash across the screen.

When the political ad in the campaign for Sunday’s Moscow City Council elections aired, human rights groups went apoplectic. One of its “stars,” Dmitri Rogozin, the leader of the up-and-coming nationalist Rodina party, insisted with wide-eyed confusion that he had been misunderstood.

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But just as the ad was making its debut, members of a largely Muslim immigrant community rioted in France. Now the watermelon ad is dubbed in French, and features a new slogan: “France, One Year Ago.”

“Look at what’s happening in France. Forget about talk of xenophobic policy -- you have cars burning on highways!” Rogozin said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen in Russia.”

What Rogozin did not mention was that it already had -- in reverse.

Nearly 50 Asians, blacks, Caucasians and other people of color died in racially motivated violence last year, mainly in savage street attacks by gangs of young Slavic hooligans. That’s more than double the number the previous year. At least 40 foreign students have been attacked this year in the city of Voronezh alone, NTV television reported last month.

“The impoverished masses from the outskirts of town, they perceive people from the Caucasus as the root cause of all their problems, so they beat them as a way of getting back at them,” said Said Bitsoyev, a native of Chechnya, a Russian republic in the Caucasus, and editor at a major Moscow newspaper. Bitsoyev’s 17-year-old son was stabbed 20 times and left for dead by skinheads last month, but survived.

Russia’s immigration problem is unlike that facing European capitals such as Paris, London and Berlin. Here, 80% of the nation’s roughly 10 million illegal migrants are hardly foreigners: They are residents of the former Soviet Union, non-Slavs who nonetheless grew up speaking Russian, going to Soviet schools, considering Moscow their capital.

Residents of North Caucasus republics such as Chechnya are, in fact, citizens of the Russian Federation, though it would be hard to tell that from Rodina’s watermelon commercial.

The underlying message of the ad -- nip the problem in the bud before troublemaking migrants run amok -- is playing big in the Moscow council campaign, seen as a dress rehearsal for issues that will dominate crucial parliamentary elections in 2007.

The immigration issue has gathered enough steam that more than 3,000 protesters rallied in a Nov. 4 nationalist march, carrying signs such as “Clean Russia of the Occupiers.”

Last month, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration sponsored a smaller rally, “Stop the Dark-Skinned Rapists,” outside the People’s Friendship University, a magnet for students from Asia, Latin America and Africa and a frequent target of racist attacks.

“People are coming out into the streets of their own accord, and threatening to resolve the problem themselves -- with clubs, if necessary,” said Alexander Belov, a co-organizer of both marches.

Rodina, which means Homeland, has eschewed violence and insists that its current campaign is focused on regulating immigration, not forcing out people of color. The party was originally seen as a brainchild of the Kremlin, created on the eve of the 2003 parliamentary elections to draw votes away from the still-influential Communist Party.

The bloc had an unexpectedly large showing, winning 9% of the vote. Together with Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, which won more than 11%, it siphoned a sizable portion of the vote from the Communists, enough to leave the once-powerful party a has-been in parliament.

Fast forward to 2007, when the next elections will help determine whether there can be a democratic transition of power at the end of President Vladimir V. Putin’s second term.

Rodina and the outspoken Rogozin now appear flush with cash, stridently in opposition to the pro-Putin United Russia and eager to commune with former opposition enemies, including the Communists and imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Whether the opposition is real or staged has yet to be determined in the chimerical world of Russian politics. Some say Putin is alternately flirting with nationalist themes himself -- resurrecting the Soviet red star, the national anthem and the Kremlin Honor Guard, along with classic emblems of czarist Russia -- and fabricating a fascist boogeyman to scare voters back into the arms of United Russia in 2007.

Rodina’s immediate chances were dealt a setback Saturday, when the Moscow City Court ruled that the party should be barred from the City Council ballot because of the watermelon ad. The election commission said it would delay implementing the ruling until the Supreme Court had a chance to hear Rodina’s appeal.

What is clear is that the party’s target remains the millions of migrant workers who flooded illegally into Russia, most of them from the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. They sell goods in the markets, sweep streets, help homeowners remodel their dachas and work at Moscow’s booming number of high-rise building sites.

Since the Soviet collapse, the busy fruit and vegetable markets of Moscow have come to be dominated by Azerbaijani immigrants, a phenomenon Rodina has blamed on the heavy-handed tactics of Azerbaijani mafia gangs. Yet few see themselves as interlopers.

Mekhti, a 40-year-old native of Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, who feared retribution from the police if he gave his last name, has been selling produce at the Leningradsky Market for the last 12 years. He simply blinked when asked whether issues such as the watermelon ad had made life harder for foreigners in Moscow.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “I’m not a foreigner. I was born in this country, in the Soviet Union. I served in the Soviet army in East Germany for this country. And now Rogozin is saying that I am garbage? We are working hard, selling fruit and vegetables to people in this city, and if they could do without us, we would not be here, believe me.”

For tens of thousands of illegal migrant workers in Moscow, the suggestion of the Paris-style uprising predicted by Rogozin arouses similar perplexity.

Tajiks and Uzbeks typically keep a low profile at the construction sites where they work, shrinking equally from the police who could deport them, the neighbors who could report them and the employer who often exploits their fears to avoid paying them.

Laziz, a 32-year-old migrant carpenter who also was afraid to be identified by his full name, said he worked for two months at an apartment building construction site this year, expecting to earn $1,200 to send home to the wife, two children, parents and younger brother he supports in Uzbekistan.

The employer advanced the workers about $120 each to buy their own food, and put them up in a cramped hostel with no shower and bunks stacked three beds high. When it was time for salaries to be handed out at the end of the second month, the migration police showed up instead. Laziz escaped by paying the $14 he had left of his food money to a police officer; two of his close friends spent weeks in prison, where one of them fell seriously ill.

“I talked to my friend on the phone, and I heard him crying into the receiver,” said Laziz, a thin, soft-spoken man too shy to make direct eye contact as he recounted the tale. “He said, ‘It’s horrible, get me out of here.’ ”

After that, Laziz and one of his other friends, still hoping to earn enough money to go back to Uzbekistan, took a job remodeling the front entrance of a central Moscow apartment building and were promised a total of $700 for 22 days of work. When the job was over, the foreman paid the two men half that -- $350.

“What can we do?” he said. “I don’t even know anybody here. And I can’t go anywhere for protection. I don’t have a [legal residence] registration. I don’t have proper documents.”

Immigration critics argue that the cheap salaries accepted by workers such as Laziz are preventing Russians from earning a living wage at construction sites. Rogozin is demanding geographically based quotas for controlled, legalized migration.

Yet Russia’s dwindling population has made it clear to most government officials that the nation’s growth will be assured only with reliable supplies of immigrant labor. The Federal Migration Service, citing fears of civil unrest if it failed to act, this year announced plans for Russia’s first major labor amnesty program, to be extended to millions of illegal migrant workers. Absent amnesty, the labor permit process presents a lengthy and often impossible bureaucratic hurdle, even for residents of former Soviet states who do not require visas to travel to Russia.

“I think we have reached a point where we must legalize them. If we do not legalize them, we will force them to become marginalized and engage in crime. We will make them people without rights,” Vyacheslav Postavnin of the migration service told reporters last month.

“With such a large number of illegal migrants, who are deprived of basic rights and who experience certain pressure from police, any kind of unrest can be provoked because they have nothing to lose,” he warned.

Rogozin’s prediction, exactly.

The watermelon ad, the Rodina party leader reiterates, was misunderstood.

“For us, the word trash refers to boorishness, to uncultured behavior toward women, toward the city. This kind of disrespectful behavior is what trash is,” he said.

“We were very hurt and stunned when we heard that someone had perceived the word as referring specifically to them.”

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.


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