Disunited Against Terror

6 April rally to commemorate the victims of Saint Petersburg terror attack stands out against the crackdown on migrants

Rallies were organised across Russia to show solidarity againt terrorism and to commemorate the victims in the aftermath of the terror attack that took place in Saint Petersburg’s metro on 3 April and left 14 dead. The rally in Moscow took place on Manezhnaya square — right at the walls of the Kremlin — where people brought candles and flowers to lay next to the monument recognising Saint Petersburg’s sacrifice in the Second World War.

As Channel 1 reports, ‘The rally “Piter, we stand with you” started spontaneously online.’ In Moscow it was organised by a number of transportation workers’ unions, though. Moscow city authorities consented to the rally saying it was non-political and thus didn’t require a timely prior notification. According to Kommersant, the Kremlin ordered the regions to hold anti-terror rallies, especially in the cities that protested corruption on 26 March. President’s press-secretary Dmitry Peskov denied this.

Bottom-right: the sign reads: ‘Russian citizenship is not shawrma! You have to earn it! Moratorium [on the fast track to Russian citizenship].’ Aleks Lokhmutov / Flickr

Despite the rally supposedly being apolitical, flags were widely on display, including those of Duma parties, and various political movements such as the ultra-patriotic nationalist National Liberation Movement. One attendee displayed a sign calling to enact a moratorium on article 14 of the Law on Russian citizenship that provides a fast track to Russian citizenship for USSR citizens that have been living in the former USSR countries but have not applied for their citizenship and thus remain stateless, and those having a parent Russian citizen, among other grounds.

The likely perpetrator of the terror act has been identified as a Russian citizen of Kyrgyz origin, his accomplices are also from Central Asia, according to FSB head Aleksandr Bortnikov. The security official called to toughen border and migration control, including supervision over immigration authorities, businesses using migrant labour, and citizens providing housing to migrants, Mediazona quotes him saying. According to Bortnikov, who is also chairing the National Anti-terror Committee, ‘migrant workers from CIS countries represent the core of terror groups in Russia.’

‘Whatever happens, all the blame then goes to migrants. We are not leaving home to work because of frequent checks and interrogations.’— a Tajik migrant to Radio Ozodi.

The policing effort had already been underway: the police and FSB conducted ‘large-scale checks of migrants’ in Chelyabinsk, Krasnodar, Moscow, Orenburg, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Saint Petersburg, Stavropol, Syktyvkar, Syzran, and Tomsk oblast. Rossosh, a city of 60,000 in Voronezh oblast has not only conducted police raids, but even opened an anonymous hotline encouraging its citizens to report migrants — ‘strangers renting a flat or acting suspiciously.’ The city web site boasts more document checks of migrants have been conducted recently — ‘of North Caucasus origin, and Roma.’ The North Caucasus is a part of Russia. There are about 200,000 Roma living in the country.

The evening of the terror attack a Twitter user from Saint Petersburg @fancho8O wrote: ‘Sitting in the Warsaw Express cinema hall. All southerners are being escorted out by the riot police.’ Although his report has not been verified, representatives of ethnic minorities are often subject to racial profiling by the police, as documented, for instance, by Human Rights Watch. It was observed that ethnic profiling in the Moscow metro is far worse than ‘the most extreme and egregious ethnic profiling ever documented through a statistical survey’ — non-Slavs are 22 times as likely to be stopped by the police as Slavic people.

More than that, migrants routinely suffer from police brutality. Three policemen stood trial in Saint Petersburg last year, being accused of kidnapping a Tajik migrant, beating him up and shooting him to extort money. Another four are awaiting verdict for assaulting a migrant in December 2016, also in Saint Petersburg. Three were convicted for killing a Tajik migrant — he was accused of rape, unfoundedly. Finally, traffic policemen in Moscow were investigated for beating up a migrant taxi driver, and a policeman in the Urals was charged with assaulting three guest workers there — just by the police station. This all happened just last year.

Prejudiced attitudes are common in the population as well. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks the media wrongly identified the bomber as Ilyas Nikitin, likely due to his Islamic hat and a long beard. Even after he was cleared of the allegations, he was fired from his job, taken off a plane, pursued by journalists, referred to as ‘the suicide bomber in a little hat’ in the media, and repeatedly reported to the police.

In 2015 FOM, a major Russian polling agency, coducted a poll about attitudes towards Islam. One of the questions asked was: ‘What first comes to your mind when you hear the word “Islam”?’ 9% answered ‘terrorism, gang violence’ and 4% ‘war.’ In 2014 26% said they would take it negatively if a friend of theirs converted to Islam, and 18% had a negative attitude towards Islam overall.

‘If before [Kyrgyz people] had only been known as migrants, now views are surfacing that migrants from Central Asia are terrorists,’ Bektur Israilov to Radio Azattyk.

The day of the bombing, I witnessed a Russian man lash out at two people — of Georgian and of Central Asian origin — calling them racial slurs, shouting ‘You, you [personally] killed my friends in Saint Petersburg, you came to my country and killed them!’ before punching one of them and being thrown out of the train. Although SOVA, a Russian NGO monitoring hate-motivated crime, does not identify any incidents past week, xenophobic attitudes have been spiking as indicated by the use of ethnic slurs on social media.

While the anti-terror rallies encouraged by the state — called ‘United against Terror’ — are happening all over Russia featuring the representatives of various confessions preaching unity from the stage, in reality both the government and Russian society are failing to address the underlying issues. The government has been dragging its feet for years to draft the strategy and policy on ethnic issues, to introduce a system to monitor ethnic conflicts and implement measures aimed at the integration of migrants. In its absence the state is coming once again to use the familiar methods of police raids and coercion that then-president Medvedev called to avoid back in 2011.

Twitter data was collected by me through Twitter Search API. Unfortunately, it only allows to fetch the tweets from past week.