Tajik Eurovision singer fears Russia crackdown on poorest migrants

Manizha Sanghin represented Russia at the Eurovision in 2021
Manizha Sanghin represented Russia at the Eurovision in 2021

It was a heartfelt plea from Russia’s most famous Tajik migrant.

In a video message on Instagram Manizha Sanghin, a female singer who represented Russia at Eurovision in 2021, voiced widespread fears that the Moscow terrorist attack could cause a backlash against her community.

“My grandmother has been gone these past 14 years. And in recent years I’ve thought a lot that I’m glad she did not live to see what is happening to us and to the world.”

“I’m glad she didn’t see that brutal night, she doesn’t see how public torture is the law’s response to brutal atrocity,” she said.

The attack at the music venue, Crocus City Hall, has brought attention once again to Russia’s difficult relationship with its large migrant communities.

Russian authorities have arrested eight people. The four accused attackers and three suspected accomplices are all of Tajik origin. The eighth is a Kyrgyzstan-born man with Russian citizenship.

All are from Russia’s large Central Asian diaspora – a broad community that often sits at the lowest economic and social strata of society and has often been subject to racist harassment.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, there were reports of assaults, at least one migrant-owned business being burned down, and clients refusing to ride with Tajik taxi drivers.

The day after the suspects were arrested a string of racially abusive comments including “Russian for the Russians” and threats of arson appeared on the website of the barber shop where one of the suspects worked.

One Tajik man living in Moscow told news site Eurasia Net that his landlord had evicted him without explanation following the attack.

He said: “Over the past year, the situation in Russia has been difficult. Constant [police raids on migrants], they treat you like you’re a criminal. Now it’s impossible to walk down the street, everyone is wary of you, avoiding you. They can just simply evict you, like you’re a dog.”

On Friday evening, the Russian security services announced that they had arrested three “nationals of a Central Asian country” who were planning a bomb attack in southwestern Russia.

crocus city hall terror attack
Gunmen opened fired at Crocus City Hall before a big fire spread throughout the building - AFP

St Petersburg courts have ordered the deportation of 418 foreign citizens, spokeswoman Daria Lebedeva said in a post on Telegram.

Shakhnoza Nodiri, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labour, Migration, and Employment, said that “a lot” of people had called the ministry seeking advice on leaving Russia.

The Tajik embassy in Moscow has advised its citizens not to leave their homes unless necessary. Kyrgyzstan has advised against all but essential travel to Russia, and Uzbekistan has urged its citizens to cooperate fully with authorities.

Since the Soviet collapse, Moscow has attracted migrants of all ethnic and social backgrounds from all corners of the former Soviet Union.

Many of the poorest came from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the most impoverished of the five former Soviet Central Asia republics.

More than ten million people from those countries now live in Russia, and the economies of all three rely heavily on remittances.

That migration has come with attendant ethnic tensions – a perennial issue that the Kremlin has traditionally managed with a mixture of populist anti immigration rhetoric while resisting calls to actually close the borders.

After the attack Vladimir Putin used a televised address to condemn attempts to divide Russia’s “multinational society”, and made clear in his speech that murderers “have no nationality”.

But he also gave vaguely worded instructions to law enforcement agencies to develop additional anti-crime measures “including compliance with the rule of law in the migration sphere – the situation in this area is very important and disturbing to millions of people and must be under control”.

That reflects a dilemma for the Kremlin.

Cheap migrant labour is essential to Russia’s economy, especially given the labour shortages created by the war.

In Russia’s diverse post-imperial society – it has an indigenous Muslim population of at least 14 million – ethnic tensions present an obvious danger to social cohesion and the Kremlin’s grip on power.

But populist, and sometimes openly racist, sentiment is also widespread, and politicians are not above using it for personal promotion.

Mikhail Matveev, an MP from Samara, has demanded a visa regime be introduced for Central Asians.

Mikhail Sheremet, an MP from Crimea, called for a blanket ban on immigration until the end of the war in Ukraine.

It is still too soon to say whether there has been an actual increase in racist attacks, said Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova research centre, a Russian think tank focused on racism and extremism.

The terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall killed at least 143 people
The terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall killed at least 143 people - Dmitry Serebryakov/AP

There is also no hard data on how far, if it all, public sentiment has shifted. But there is definitely, he said, a fear that it will.

“For example, many migrants, Tajiks especially but not only Tajiks, have started avoiding going outside. Just staying home where they can. People are anticipating a surge in xenophobia because it has happened before.”

“We don’t know how much attitudes have really changed. But Putin has already ordered law enforcement agencies to develop some kind of measures to address migration violations.

“We don’t know what those measures will be yet – but the words have been uttered.”

In 2013, the southern Moscow district of Biryulyovo saw race riots after a Russian man was stabbed, allegedly by a migrant worker from the Caucasus.

In 2010, the stabbing of a football fan by a migrant caused a nationalist rampage that culminated in an afternoon’s rioting outside the Kremlin walls in the centre of Moscow.

Previous major terrorist attacks in Russia were connected with conflicts inside Russia – specifically the wars in Chechnya and the wider insurgency in the North Caucasus.

On Tuesday Moscow region police raided a warehouse belonging to Wildberries, Russia’s largest online retailer.

The company later said the site had been subject to a “document check as part of the work of migration and law enforcement agencies” and that 38 staff were facing additional checks.

It said operations were not affected.

But it’s not the first time. In fact, immigration service raids on hostels and places of work have been sharply on the rise for at least the past three years, said Mr Verkhovsky.

The same warehouse was targeted in a similar raid in November. On that occasion the company complained that 8,000 staff were unable to get to work and that the interruption to operations could cost billions in losses.

There have been cases where police have shown up at sports grounds where men of Central Asian appearance are playing football, arrested them and taken them for document checks.

Some reports suggest the November raid, among others, was an attempt to press-gang migrants for the war effort in Ukraine.

Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, an agency that handles federal-level crime, claimed there had been a significant uptick in crime by migrants. He later said naturalised migrants should lose their citizenship if they refuse to fight.

Mr Verkhovsky isn’t so sure. His monitoring suggests the campaign against Central Asian migrants started much earlier.

“No one knows why. It started in 2021. There was a brief break around the start of the war, but only for about six months, and then it started again,” he said.

The other odd development is a sudden resurgence of racist street attacks, often by gangs of school-age teenagers who seem to be emulating the fashions of the skinheads who terrorised ethnic minorities in the 1990s and 2000s.

The level of racist violence is still far below that of the 2000s. But the uptick over the past year has been noticeable. Mr Verkhovsky said he does not have an obvious explanation for it.

“Perhaps it is simply that a Central Asian labour migrants remain possibly the most vulnerable and exploited economic layer in Russia. But on the whole, they’re still much better than 20 years ago.”

There have been improvements in access to work permits, residency registration and taxes. And perhaps above all, they are earning more money.

The war has helped with that. Mass recruitment of Russians for the army has created a shortage of workers.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the construction sector in particular has suffered as many people now opt to work as couriers for delivery apps rather than on building sites. The pay is better and the work is not as hard.