Why Putin would not build the wall with Mexico

Similarities and differences between Donald Trump and his counterpart’s immigration policies

by Victoria Pickering, from the White House to the Capitol, February 4th, 2017

I didn’t believe my ears when I first heard about the immigration ban. I was taking a piano class at Stanford, and an Iraqi student sitting next to me explained to the professor that he was too busy to practice that week. (why?) My thoughts switched to Arif, my classmate at the JSK Journalism Fellowships program, who has a Sudanese passport. Later, I heard the story of another friend, a green card holder from Trinidad, who was detained for three hours on the US border in Florida.

As one of thousands of international students across America, I have been frustrated. I was born and worked as a journalist in Russia, where nationalism is one of our historical pain points. That’s why I know it is dangerous to let the genie out of the bottle. “Even Putin would not build a wall!” I was suddenly saying to myself.

Here's where the interesting parallels start. Just as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have many things in common, so Russia and the US share common ground on immigration issues. Much like the US, Russia has its own “Mexico”: these are the former Soviet republics, now independent countries in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. There are millions of migrants in Russia, legal and illegal, who suffer from all types of discrimination, hate speech, and abuse. They are stopped on the street by police, asked for bribes, and detained if they have no money. The most terrifying story happened in 2015, when in Saint Petersburg, a five-month-old Tajik kid was taken away from his young mother and was later found dead under unrevealed conditions. The family was detained for breaking the immigration law.

Many Russian people think illegal migrants are evil and responsible for a wide range of crimes.

Like the US, Russia has a “Muslim issue,” because it has suffered terrorist attacks involving many victims. The roots of terrorism sometimes lead to Chechnya and federal republics in the Northern Caucasus, parts of Russia similar to the American states. No one can ban the citizens of a country from living in and traveling through their own country. But some aggressive Russian nationalists, I bet, would ban ethnic Chechens from traveling to Moscow. In fact, the idea to surround Chechnya with a wall was popular with the public and among politicians in the late 1990s.

But Putin and Trump’s immigration policies are very different.

Since the battle phase of the Second Chechen war ended in 2000, the Kremlin has been known to touch on national issues using very cautious rhetoric. Whenever the topic of crime committed by migrants appears in the news, the spectrum of politicians, from old school Communists to emerging opposition leader Alexey Navalny, waves immigration as a red flag. They come out with a “simple” solution: to create a visa regime for Central Asian countries. This is the ground where politicians can get some points: the theme of immigrants who are taking prosperity and wealth away from Russians, causes a lot of anger among the less educated public. I remember a winter day in 2010, when 50,000 protesters, many of them skinheads, came out to march just one hundred meters from the Kremlin walls, after a young guy was killed in a hassle between nationalist football fans and men from the Northern Caucasus.

Putin has been the only Russian politician who hasn’t played this game. The Kremlin always squeezes past the topic, coming up with half-solutions, and simply waits until people’s anger is gone. Bans, or even visas, for Central Asians, have never become a real issue on the agenda.

What about the wall around Chechnya, with its predominantly Muslim population? Seventeen years have passed since Putin promised to kill terrorists in their bathrooms, and the Kremlin’s relationship with Chechnya has turned from hot to cold. The Chechen republic receives funds from the federal budget, the Chechen diaspora feels safe and comfortable in Moscow, and aggressively develops businesses there. Publicly, Putin often speaks cautiously when he touches on the Islamic issue, especially compared with how he blames the West for everything bad that has happened in Russia and the world.

Putin plays this game differently than Trump, not because he’s a humanist, but because he’s a rationalist. Since he has established strong vertical relationships with the leaders of the Caucasus republics based on his personal and military power, those republics typically send him and his party over 80 percent of the popular vote in any election (Chechen republic delivered 99 percent), while educated, rich and westernized Moscow certainly gives him less than 50 percent of the vote. What about migrants from Central Asia? They’ve always been a source of cheap labor, and they improve the demographic picture of Russia, where the native population tends to die faster than it reproduces.

For good or bad reasons, in domestic policy, Putin behaves like one of the least nationalist Russian leaders since Ivan the Terrible.