The Central Asian countries, a source of raw materials with little manufacturing capacity and heavily subsidized by Moscow, were left particularly vulnerable. Twenty years after independence, a flood of Central Asians looking for work washes over Moscow, turning it into a city of migrants, Abdul Malik among them.
“You can survive,” he said, standing outside his hut in the quiet woods as a summer evening faded into night. “You can earn something here.”
Moscow, a city of 11.5 million according to last year’s census, has as many as 5 million migrants, more than half of them undocumented. The migrants, many of them from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, exist on the fringes of society, harassed by police, victimized by employers and disliked by Russians, once their fellow Soviet citizens. The flawed policies of the old system, where the two countries were turned into cotton fields for the empire and dependent on Moscow, haunt the new nations still, long after the old ideology was discarded.
In Moscow, deep-seated prejudice against Central Asians (and people from Russia’s Caucasian mountains) gives restive young nationalists a target for their anger. Ethnic tension has been rising, giving the city a dangerous edge. About one Central Asian is killed every month in a racially motivated attack in the city, and many are beaten up, with numerous assaults unreported. Others die in accidents.
Last year, according to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow nonprofit organization, 37 people were killed in Russia in racially motivated attacks and 368 reported injured, most of them Central Asians.
In one horrifying incident, a 20-year-old Tajik was stabbed and then beheaded on his way home from work in December 2008, apparently by ultranationalists. That year 600 Tajiks died in Russia, 84 of them because of hate crimes, the Tajik government said.
The migrants come anyway, driven by desperation. Despite all obstacles, they have created an important economy of their own. There are more Uzbeks here than Tajiks: Uzbekistan has a population of nearly 28 million. But Tajikistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, and close to a million of its 7 million people are working in Russia. Last year they sent home $2.3 billion, about 45 percent of that country’s GDP, according to the National Bank of Tajikistan.
Russia has become an important source of such remittances, amounting to about $18.6 billion in 2009, according to the World Bank.