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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Worries over ethnic tensions have Kremlin treading carefully on massacre

By Anton Troianovski and Milana Mazaeva

At a memorial service this week outside the concert hall where Islamic extremists are suspected of carrying out a deadly terrorist attack, one of Russia’s most popular pro-Kremlin rappers warned “right-wing and far-right groups” that they must not “incite ethnic hatred.”

At a televised meeting about the attack, Russia’s top prosecutor, Igor Krasnov, pledged that his service was paying “special attention” to preventing “interethnic and interfaith conflicts.”

And when President Vladimir Putin made his first comments on the tragedy last weekend, he said he would not allow anyone to “sow the poisonous seeds of hatred, panic and discord in our multiethnic society.”

In the wake of the assault near Moscow that killed 139 people on Friday, there has been a recurring theme in the Kremlin’s response: a fear that the tragedy could spur ethnic strife inside Russia. While Putin and his security chiefs are accusing Ukraine — without evidence — of having helped organize the killing, the fact that the four detained suspects in the attack are from the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country of Tajikistan is stoking anti-migrant rhetoric online.

For Putin, the problem is magnified by the competing priorities of his war in Ukraine. Members of Muslim minority groups make up a significant share of the Russian soldiers fighting and dying. Migrants from Central Asia are providing much of the labor that keeps Russia’s economy running and its military supply chain humming.

But many of the most fervent supporters of Putin’s invasion are Russian nationalists whose popular, pro-war blogs on the Telegram messaging app have brimmed with xenophobia in the days since the attack.

“The borders have to be shut down as much as possible, if not closed,” said one. “The situation now has shown that Russian society is on the brink.”

As a result, the Kremlin is walking a fine line, trying to keep war supporters happy by promising tougher action against migrants while trying to prevent tensions from flaring across society. The potential for violence was highlighted in October, when an antisemitic mob stormed an airport in the predominantly Muslim Russian region of Dagestan to confront a passenger plane arriving from Israel.

“The authorities see this as a very big, serious threat,” Sergey Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst in Moscow and a former Kremlin adviser, said in a phone interview. “That’s why all efforts are being made now to calm down public opinion.”

Caught in the middle are millions of migrant workers and ethnic-minority Russians who are already facing an increase on city streets in the kind of racial profiling that was commonplace even before the attack. Svetlana Gannushkina, a longtime Russian human rights defender, said Tuesday that she was scrambling to try to help a Tajik man who had just been detained because the police “are looking for Tajiks” and “saw a person with such an appearance.”

Nearly 1 million citizens of Tajikistan, which has a population of about 10 million, were registered in Russia as migrant workers last year, according to government statistics. They are among the millions of migrant laborers in Russia from across the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, a driving force in Russia’s economy, from food delivery and construction to factory work.

A manager of a food business in Moscow that employs Tajiks said in an interview that the mood in the Russian capital reminded her of the 2000s, when Muslims from the Caucasus region faced widespread discrimination in the wake of terrorist attacks and the wars in Chechnya. Tajiks in Moscow are so apprehensive they are hardly going outside at all, she said, requesting anonymity because she feared repercussions for speaking to a Western journalist.

In his speeches on the war, Putin has paid frequent lip service to Russia as a multiethnic state — a legacy of the Russian and Soviet empires. In March 2022, after describing the heroism of a soldier from Dagestan, Putin enumerated some of Russia’s ethnic groups by saying: “I am a Lak, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, an Ossetian.”

In his rhetoric about his conflict with the West, Putin has frequently accused Russia’s adversaries of trying to stir up ethnic strife in Russia. That was his response to the Dagestan airport riot in October, which he baselessly blamed on Western intelligence agencies and Ukraine. That is also increasingly at the center of his response to Friday’s terrorist attack, which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for and U.S. officials say was carried out by a branch of the extremist group. On Tuesday, the head of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency claimed that Ukrainian, British and American spies might have been behind it.

The upshot appears to be that the Kremlin is seeking to refocus anger over the attack toward Ukraine while trying to show the public that it is taking concerns about migration into account.

Still, Markov, the pro-Kremlin analyst, said he saw tensions over migration policy even inside Putin’s powerful security establishment. Anti-immigrant law enforcement and intelligence officials, he said, were at odds with a military-industrial complex that needs migrant labor.

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