Integration still a challenge in Russia

Russian Migrant Workers file photo

Russian society has yet to accept that mass migration is a fact, which makes it harder for those moving to the country to integrate into society, according to an expert on xenophobia.

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – – Ilya Krol – November 2, 2015)

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis is one of the leading nonprofit organizations in Russia examining nationalism and ethnic and religious xenophobia. Founded in 2002, the center regularly publishes material dealing with the issue of migration. RBTH spoke with the head of the center, Alexander Verkhovsky, about the attitudes of Russians toward migrants, multiculturalism and the politically incorrect term “assimilation.”

Q: The migrant in modern Russia – who is he or she? Is it possible to draw a typical portrait of such a person?

In Russia, the word “migrant” is used in a way that is far from literal: a “migrant” is not an “immigrant,” temporary or permanent, but any person who moves from one place to another if his ethnicity is clearly different from that of the host community.

Technically, Russia’s first post-Soviet generation of immigrants are the millions of people who have moved from the former Soviet republics to Russia. Ethnically, many of them are Russian, but few would call them “migrants,” although they also had trouble adapting to the new location.

In the 2000s, the term “migrants” is primarily used for immigrants and temporary labor migrants from Central Asia and the South Caucasus. There are a few from other Asian countries, rarely from Africa. [The term is] also for those who have moved from the North Caucasus to other regions of Russia, if these people are not Slavs.

Q: One of the key indicators of attitudes toward migrants is the level of xenophobia. What is the situation in Russia?

The first wave of xenophobia was in the early 1990s and, of course, it was triggered by the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dramatic consequences. Then everything somewhat calmed down, and a new abrupt surge occurred at the turn of 1999 and 2000 as a result of the second Chechen war.

Understandably, the Chechens were singled out then, but hostility extended to other “non-Slavs.” Between 2000 and 2012, its level was consistently high; about 55 percent of our citizens believed then that the ethnic majority should have privileges: “Russia is for the Russians.”

Q: A recent survey by the independent pollster Levada Center showed that the level of xenophobia in Russian society has gone down. What is the reason, in your opinion?

It went down as early as in 2014. By some measures, even below the level of 2012. One of the reasons is the events connected with Ukraine.

The theme of migration as a threat has been replaced by the theme of the crisis of relations with the West and the protection of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. It immediately became clear that the real problems related to migration are not so great, since they are easily forced out of the public consciousness by other issues.

Q: Is this a long-term trend or a temporary phenomenon?

It inspires cautious optimism that people have started to answer questions like “What to do with migrants” in a more rational way. Mass migration is always a great social problem, and it is unlikely that it can be resolved smoothly, but if the majority of citizens will switch, finally, from pure alarmism to the discussion of constructive solutions, these solutions will be possible.

Q: Religion, race, different culture- which is the most frequent trigger of ethnic conflict in Russia?

As a rule, it is not economic concerns or security issues – terrorism and so-called ethnic crime – that dominate, but rather what is called “negative perception of cultural distance.”

The “others” do everything “in the other way.” Appearance is a marker of cultural distance. Everything else, including religion, are less significant markers. The negative attitude does not necessarily translate into actual aggression; it can be latent.

Q: It is believed that xenophobia was practically nonexistent in the Soviet Union – the same Uzbeks, Tajiks or Azerbaijanis who are now coming to Russia as migrants lived with each other and with Russians without any conflicts as Soviet citizens. Is this true?

Polls on such topics certainly did not exist in the Soviet Union. But I was born in 1962, so I remember well that there was xenophobia. For example, the word “Georgian” was frequently used as a pejorative, while people from Central Asia were called the same names as now.

There were also conflicts on the periphery of the Soviet Union. The other thing is that there could not exist an organized nationalist movement of any kind, and now it does. The only consolation is that organizations of nationalists in no way enjoy mass support.

Q: The United States is often cited as an example of a country that has defeated xenophobia, where migrants are really assimilated with the pre-existing population. What is the situation in Russia?

The term “assimilation” is now considered not very politically correct, as it implies the rejection of original ethnic and cultural identity. The preferred term is “integration,” which involves the combination of two identities – the ethnic and cultural one in some aspects of life and the general civil in the others. This combination, however, applies not only to migrants, but also to the host population.

So far, integration proceeds with difficulty in Russia, because society is not ready to recognize mass immigration as an accomplished fact. In Russia, migrant workers are even called Gastarbeiter [German for “guest workers”]; in the 1950s, the Germans thought that the workers from Turkey were temporary, too.

But no, mass migration is here to stay, and, as long as society is not ready to accept it, it is not ready to make efforts to integrate migrants. However, more enterprising migrants overcome all the difficulties, learn Russian, create mixed families.

A native of Moscow, Verkhovtsev graduated from the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas Industry with a degree in applied mathematics, but soon found himself drawn to questions of nationalism and xenophobia. He has been the director of the SOVA research center since 2002 and a member of Russia’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights since 2012.

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