MOSCOW, October 16 (Howard Amos, RIA Novosti) – Public prayers to mark the beginning of the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha were not as crowded as usual this year in Moscow.
A violent nationalist rampage over the weekend has left the city’s migrant laborers, many of them from mainly Muslim former Soviet nations, feeling uneasy.
Speaking outside the Cathedral Mosque in downtown Moscow, Maksu Magdisyan, a crane operator from Armenia, said he knew of several fellow Muslims who had decided against attending prayers because they were scared.
“The imam warned us that there could be provocations,” Magdisyan said.
Moscow police estimated Tuesday that about 103,000 people had gathered in the morning sunshine for ritual prayers on the first day of festivities for Eid al-Adha, known in Russia by its Turkic name of Kurban Bairam. That’s nearly one-third less than braved the rain last year.
Ethnic Violence in Moscow
Nerves have been frayed among the city’s migrant population since an unsanctioned protest over the killing of 25-year old Yegor Shcherbakov last week in the southern Moscow neighborhood of Biryulyovo spiraled out of control. The suspected killer, identified as Orkhan Zeinalov, from Azerbaijan, was apprehended Tuesday by police special forces in a town 120 kilometers outside Moscow.
On Sunday evening, nationalist protesters clashed with riot police and attacked Biryulyovo’s Pokrovsky vegetable warehouse, where many migrant laborers work.
Video footage shows mobs of young men shouting “Go Russia” as they smash windows.
Researchers writing for Russian news website Slon.ru said in an article this week that the number of Azerbaijanis living in Biryulyovo has earned the district the nickname “little Baku” – a reference to the former Soviet nation’s capital.
According to federal migration officials, 11.3 million foreigners entered Russia in the first six months of this year, including 3 million who work illegally. But the term “migrant” is often used to refer to Russian citizens from the North Caucasus region who have non-Slavic ethnic roots and cultural backgrounds.
Frustration at demographic trends seen as threatening the native Russian population has sparked high-profile episodes of violence in recent years. A major undercurrent of the interethnic tensions lies in the widespread perception that the police and justice system are unable, or unwilling, to ensure law and order.
The most significant recent wave of xenophobic unrest was in 2010, when thousands of football fans demonstrated outside the walls of the Kremlin and attacked people of non-Slavic appearance in the street after the murder of a Muscovite football fan. The ostensible trigger for the unrest was the detention and surprisingly quick release of a suspect in the killing, who hailed from the North Caucasus.
The authorities have focused much of their attention in Biryulyovo since Sunday's violence by targeting workers at the Biryulyovo vegetable warehouse, an apparent attempt to soothe local tensions.
About 1,200 people were rounded up in a police raid Monday at the site in what was described as a preventative check for “involvement in criminal activity.” Senior health officials and investigators say it is likely the warehouse will be shut down permanently.
Migrants across Moscow fear that the rigorous police checks could be stepped up after Biryulyovo. Anecdotal accounts of police extorting bribes, even from those carrying correct papers, are already commonplace.
One group of Tajiks and Uzbeks who live and work on the eastern outskirts of Moscow have taken extra precautions during this year’s Eid al-Adha holiday.
While their employer had originally given the green light for about 100 people to gather in a basement and hold an informal prayer meeting, permission was suddenly revoked Monday afternoon, the group’s foreman told RIA Novosti, in light of heightened scrutiny from the authorities post-Biryulyovo.
“So we broke up into groups and … read prayers in four or five rooms” in the dormitories and apartments where they live, said the foreman, who asked that his name not be printed out of fear for himself and the workers he oversees.
“One wrong word and I’ll get deported that very day, that very minute, even though all my papers are in order,” he said.
Mobs: Unaware of Nuance
If the past few days show anything, it is that crowds propelled by nationalist rage make no particular distinctions among the targets of their violence.
An Uzbek migrant who makes his living trading scrap metal and asked that his name not be printed out of concern for job security, said Central Asian migrants were suffering despite having no apparent link to the Biryulyovo events.
“An Azeri kills a Russian, and for some reason we’re the ones who get blamed,” he said.