Increase in Crimes Against Foreigners Has Russian Authorities Worried

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 73

Mayor Sardana Avksent’iva addresses in Yakutsk, March 18 (Source: TASS)

A recent Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) report entitled, “The Composition of Crimes in Russia for January to March 2019” revealed that the number of crimes committed against foreigners and stateless persons has increased 9 percent year-on-year. Simultaneously, the number of crimes committed in Russia by foreigners has declined by a similar amount (10.2 percent); yet, of those crimes, citizens of former Soviet countries (mainly Central Asia and the South Caucasus) remain the chief offenders (while also making up the lion’s share of foreigners in Russia). Crimes committed by foreigners consist mainly of theft, fraud and robbery. The preliminary statistics for 2019 on attacks against foreigners stand out because such crimes had heretofore been falling as a result of both improved enforcement of human rights and a concerted effort by the authorities to make the country feel safe to visitors coming in for the 2018 FIFA World Cup (Kommersant, May 8). While the focus of the report is on economic crimes committed both by and against migrants, the fact that such data was collected and made public by the MVD at all suggests the sensitivity of Russian authorities to the alleged association between foreigners and criminality.

Indeed, on March 17, 2019, pogrom-style violence against non-Slavic guest workers broke out in Yakutsk, the capital of the far northern Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). The attacks were sparked in response to media reports about the alleged kidnapping and rape of 17-year-old Oksana Varlamova by a 23-year-old Kyrgyz labor migrant who was arrested and charged under the appropriate rules of the Russian criminal code. However, the “ethnic subtext” of the incident garnered vociferous social media attention from various sources, including the media service of the regional branch of the ruling United Russia political party, which explicitly pointed out that the crime had been committed by a Central Asian migrant. Quickly, calls began to circulate on social media for a public demonstration “to show the unity of the Sakha people” on the city’s Komsomolskaya Square. On the evening of March 17, around 200 people gathered on the square, shouting, amongst other things, xenophobic slogans. Police even arrested one drunken man for extremist language. The head of the region’s government then came before the mob and invited all those interested to come to a town hall meeting on March 18 at the “Triumph” sporting arena. After the rally, however, instead of returning home, many of the demonstrators turned to attacking migrants. As a result, three people died and another 20 were hospitalized. The Yakut nationalist group Us Tumuu reportedly directed some of the violence (, March 19).

The meeting on March 18 still went ahead, during which the head of the republic, Aisen Nikolaev, confirmed the rumor that the arrested man was a citizen of Kyrgyzstan. And addressing the 3,000 attendees, the city mayor, Sardana Avksent’iva, promised to step up the fight against illegal immigration. She also pledged to create a new force to target migrant crime that would include representatives from every national community in the city. In turn, Nikolaev went on to declare there would be a ban against migrants working in certain protected sectors of the economy in Yakutia (, March 19).

At the same time, however, some politicians were determined to at least try to prevent the case from fueling further xenophobic sentiment. As such, Avksent’iva declared on television that “crime has no nationality.” Similarly, on her Facebook page, the mayor wrote, “We cannot allow a single crime to lead to ethnic hatred… I understand the motives of the residents of Yakutsk who gathered last night at a spontaneous rally. The case caused a special response because a citizen of Kyrgyzstan committed a brazen act” (, March 21).

Amidst the angry rally and next-day forum with local authorities, newspapers reported on a series of attacks that targeted vegetable stalls and kiosks belonging to Central Asian migrants in Yakutsk. Moreover, the leader of the local diaspora claimed he knew of at least five cases in which Kyrgyz people had been attacked on the street. Reports also emerged of Kyrgyz bus drivers coming under attack (, March 19). In response, the Kyrgyz community held something of a spontaneous strike. Immigrant drivers, claiming “technical problems” refused to operate their public commuter vehicles on March 19; thus, 80–90 buses did not complete their routes that day. Similarly, fruit and vegetable kiosks in the city did not open (, March 19). What is perhaps most striking about the Yakutsk case is that, in their attempt to defuse the situation, the local authorities tried to highlight statistics about the lower propensity for migrants to engage in criminal behavior. For example, in 2017, out of the 117 criminal acts recorded in the city, only 6 were committed by foreigners.

Ultimately, the Yakutsk case underscores yet again the powerful forces that can be unleashed when foreigners or foreignness are connected in the public’s mind with crime and criminality. Indeed, evidence strongly suggests that many hate-motivated attacks in Russia since 2000 were at least partially motivated by the perceived association between foreigners and criminal activities. As such, any instances that lend credence to such an association are inherently destabilizing (Richard Arnold, Russian Nationalism and Ethnic Violence: Symbolic Violence, Lynching, Pogrom, and Massacre, 2016). Prior to the above-described events in Yakutia, the last major anti-migrant pogrom in Russia had occurred in Moscow’s Biryulyevo district in 2013 (see EDM October 17, 2013). The subsequent five-year “pause” in such extremist-nativist behavior thus led some analysts to argue that the “Crimean consensus” (that is, nationalist/patriotic fervor caused by the annexation of Crimea in 2014) had largely dissipated xenophobic tendencies within Russian society (Svetlana V. Lourié, “The National Project in Contemporary Russia and the Dynamics of Interethnic Marriage as Its Indicator: To the Issue of the Perspectives of the ‘All-Russian People’ Commonality Formation,” November 9, 2018). However, the continued sensitivity of Russian authorities to foreigners committing crimes and the events in Yakutia suggest that such impulses were only temporarily quelled and not wholly removed from the public arena.