The continuing tensions in Ukraine have resulted in over 21,000 refugees from eastern Ukraine receiving temporary shelter in Russia, according to Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations. The Central, Southern and North Caucasian federal districts received the majority of the refugees from Ukraine (gazeta.ru, July 12).
The total number of refugees from Ukraine is estimated at over 100,000 people, some of whom have even ended up in places like Dagestan—the most violent territory of Russia. Six Russian regions that are close to the Russian-Ukrainian border and have received many refugees from Ukraine have been placed under an “extreme situation” regime, although it is unclear what this regime entails (ria.ru, July 10).
The deliberate dispersion of the refugees from Ukraine across various regions of Russia appears to be part of a propaganda push to garner greater support for Moscow’s policies toward its western neighbor, as well as to strengthen Russian nationalism. The importance of the Ukrainian refugees in the Kremlin’s policy toolbox may explain why Russian officials react with such hostility to those regions that do not want to accept any of the refugees. Even though they are from Ukraine, the refugees are ethnic Russians and some regions feel uncomfortable about this influx.
Rais Suleimanov, a research fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies who is a well-known protagonist of Moscow’s interests in Tatarstan, attacked Tatarstan’s authorities for failing to provide proper support for Ukrainian refugees. Suleimanov described a conversation between an anonymous journalist and a Tatarstani official who responded to criticism about the hurdles refugees from Ukraine face in Tatarstan by saying: “First Uzbeks came and complained, now the Ukrainians also came, they stand in long lines and complain, so what?” The journalist pointed out that unlike the migrants from Uzbekistan, the Ukrainians escaped from war. The Tatarstani official then grumbled that the arrivals should prove they are refugees. At a press conference in Kazan, an official from the Tatarstani branch of the Russian Migration Service, Rustem Valiullov, said 897 Ukrainian citizens were officially registered in the republic, but that only six of them had applied for refugee status. Valiullov stated that people claiming refugee status must prove they were persecuted and that their lives were in danger in their country. Suleimanov responded by asking: “Is it not clear that people in Novorossiya (New Russia, the Russian name for eastern Ukraine) are killed and is it not proof that people are in danger and are persecuted in their country?” (Regnum, July 4).
Meanwhile, Russian media reports suggest that refugees from Ukraine encounter significant hurdles throughout Russia. Many refugees reportedly receive no assistance from the government, but the proportion of those who actually apply for refugee status is quite low. For example, in the past month, 4,000 Ukrainian citizens registered with the Russian Migration Service, but only 74 actually have asked for refugee status. Ukrainians in Russia complain that they cannot find jobs with their Ukrainian passports. Some even allege that Russian border guards prevent many Ukrainians from crossing the border into Russia to avoid a large influx of refugees from Ukraine (mk.ru, July 11). The numbers suggest that many of the “Ukrainian refugees” may in fact be economic migrants that have regularly come to Russia in search of work. Certainly there are refugees from Ukraine in Russia, but it is unclear how many of them were truly in danger.
Suleimanov accused the authorities in Tatarstan of Tatar nationalism, which precludes them from accepting ethnic-Russian refugees. “An ethnocracy does not need Russian speakers,” he said. “Imagine, many refugees arrive; after one year of being in refugee status, they will legally receive Russian citizenship, i.e. settle in Russia and in particular in Tatarstan. Then the number of Russians will increase in the republic. These Russian refugees will be able to become part of the Russian national movement in Tatarstan.” But the authorities in Kazan, according to Suleimanov, are trying to turn Tatarstan into an “Islamic republic,” so they do not welcome Russian refugees (Regnum, July 4).
Suleimanov’s revelations about the possible role of ethnic Russians from Ukraine in Tatarstan indicate that Moscow may indeed be planning a social engineering project, using ethnic-Russian refugees from Ukraine. For example, little Adygea, with a total population of about half a million people, a quarter of which are ethnic Circassians, the titular nationality, has received about 2,000 refugees from Ukraine, which prompted the republic to introduce an extreme situation regime (ITAR-TASS, July 14).
Moscow’s intention may be to increase the ethnic-Russian component in areas of the country that have experienced a drop in the ethnic-Russian population and a growth in the non-Russian population. Apart from Tatarstan and other Volga region non-Russian republics, the North Caucasus republics also appear to be on the Kremlin’s list. All these republics either have accepted refugees from Ukraine or plan to accept them in the near future. Artificially increasing the number of ethnic Russians in ethnic-minority regions is unlikely to work, because the refugees will move to big Russian cities in search of work and better economic prospects. However, a significant refugee influx from Ukraine may well raise tensions in the North Caucasus, where jobs are in short supply and inter-ethnic tensions are already high.