Since early 2008 eight Kyrgyz citizens have been brutally killed in Moscow and St. Petersburg by members of local skinhead movements. All of the victims were male labor migrants from rural Kyrgyzstan who had come to Russia to find work. Besides the murders, over 30 hate crimes against Kyrgyz citizens in Russia have been committed by skinhead movements in recent weeks.
Popular outrage over the violence is mounting with each incident. Most people blame the Kyrgyz government for failing to provide jobs to the impoverished population, forcing young men to look for work in Russia and Kazakhstan. Although local newspapers have noted these deaths, no analytical studies have been published to date. Indeed, most outlets condemn hate groups in Russia, but they refrained from criticizing the Russian government. Russian political leaders and their policies still enjoy wide popularity in Kyrgyzstan, and few residents see a link between Russian state nationalism and the skinhead movements.
Public outrage about Russian skinhead movements is much more subdued than the reaction when U.S. soldier Zachary Hatfield in December 2006 accidentally killed Alexander Ivanov, a truck driver working at the U.S. military base at Manas airport. Then, local analysts and newspapers expressed anger, while students staged protests in front of the American University in Central Asia in central Bishkek, demanding the closure of the U.S. military base from Kyrgyzstan. A number of local activists speculated on Hartfield’s real motives in killing Ivanov and the possibility of nuclear weapons storage at the U.S. base.
Despite weekly stories about the murder of Kyrgyz citizens in Russia over the past two months, there have been no protests in front of the Russian embassy in Bishkek. No local political leaders, NGO activists, or students have demanded the closure of the Russian air base in Kant.
In fact, most Kyrgyz citizens think that the Russian government is doing everything in its power to prevent skinhead movements. Some even sympathize with these movements, trying to rationalize their illegal behavior by a weariness over the large flows of immigrants into Russian cities. As one Kyrgyz student who formerly lived in Moscow explains to Jamestown, “Imagine, an old woman in Moscow has all her life been buying bread from the same shop and the same merchant. And one day she comes to the shop and some shaggy migrant is setting a higher price for the bread she used to buy for years. Wouldn’t she feel angry? Of course Muscovites will hate migrants.”
There is also a certain degree of romanticism around the criminal underworld in Moscow and Russia. High crime rates in Moscow are associated with fearless gangsters and wealthy mafia barons and often are regarded as a norm.
The almost absolute dominance of Russian mass media outlets in Kyrgyzstan partly explains the sympathetic attitudes toward Russia. Popular perspective on international affairs, the wars in Chechnya and Iraq, and Russian-Georgian relations are often shaped by Russian news outlets. Russian entertainment programs that frequently feature racist humor about labor migrants are also widely popular in Kyrgyzstan.
Earlier this year the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow sent a memo to the Russian authorities expressing concern about increasing number of Kyrgyz citizens murdered in Russia. However, the Kyrgyz government is wary of taking any harsh steps, especially now that Gazprom has received a license to explore gas reserves in Kyrgyzstan and will likely buy KyrgyzGaz this year. The Kyrgyz government is expecting up to $2 billion in Russian investment.
To assure the inflow of Russian investment and the Kremlin’s political support, the Kyrgyz government loyally takes pro-Russian positions in most international developments. On February 20, for example, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly condemned Kosova’s declaration of independence, refusing to recognize the new country before the final decision by the UN Security Council is carried out.
As a response to the Kyrgyz government’s concern with the increased attacks against its citizens, the Russian Ministry of Interior promised to form a special investigative team comprised of policemen. However, this decision is a mere pretense on the part of the Russian authorities, who will do little to genuinely fight radical movements. This special operation will not solve the bigger problem of hate crimes that regularly intimidate labor migrants and foreign students. Last year alone 14 Kyrgyz were killed in Moscow. Every day hundreds of labor migrants from China, other Central Asian states, the South Caucasus, and Eastern Europe suffer attacks by skinhead movements. As one Washington-based analyst told Jamestown, “If FSB really wanted to reduce the activity of skinheads, it would do so in a matter of days.”
Kyrgyz students studying in Moscow admit that the city is full of skinhead groups and it is only safe for them to stay within the Koltsevaya metro line. Yet, most of them still admire the Russian capital city. As one student in Bishkek jokingly says, “Russian newspapers spread information about brutal killings of CIS citizens. Sometimes no other news comes from Moscow about the Kyrgyz… Why do Russian media outlets contribute to the bad image of their country?”
(24.kg, Akipress.kg, Fergana.ru, February 18-20)