Before and After the Crocus City Hall Attack: Tajik Migrants in Russia

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Before and After the Crocus City Hall Attack: Tajik Migrants in Russia

An interview with Malika Bahovadinova on the complexities of the Tajik migration experience in Russia.

Before and After the Crocus City Hall Attack: Tajik Migrants in Russia

Saidakrami Murodali Rachabalizoda, a suspect in the Crocus City Hall shootings, is escorted by police and FSB officers in Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, on March 24, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File

On March 22, as a Russian band was preparing to take the stage at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in the outskirts of Moscow before a sold-out house, four gunman entered the hall. They opened fire and set the concert hall ablaze. More than 500 people were injured, and ultimately 145 people were killed.

Almost immediately, media reports identified the attackers as ethnic Tajiks. Two days after the attack, four suspects appeared in a Moscow court, each bearing visible signs of torture – bruised eyes, a severed ear. Their court appearance was prefaced by videos circulating on social media of their violent interrogations.

The exact number fluctuates, but it’s estimated that around 1 million Tajik citizens are in Russia at any given time; in 2022, remittances, as a share of Tajikistan’s GDP, hit 51 percent. 

Despite media reports of increased pressure on Tajik migrant workers and others from Central Asia in Russia in the wake of the Crocus City Hall attack, “Racialized violence was always part and parcel of mobility to Russia,” political anthropologist Malika Bahovadinova told The Diplomat. 

In the following interview, Bahovadinova, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Amsterdam researching Central Asian migration to Russia, explains the role Tajik migrants play in the economies of both Russia and Tajikistan, dives into Russia’s ever-evolving migration system, and helps dissect some of the complexities often missed in reporting on Central Asian migration to Russia.

In the wake of the Crocus City Hall attack, we have seen increased media reports of incidents of discrimination and abuse directed toward Central Asian migrants, particularly Tajiks. How have conditions changed for this community since the attack? Is the present moment a continuation of existing conditions or a departure?

The past month certainly has seen more reports of violence and abuse against migrant workers – but in many ways the situation had been worsening before this as well. Indeed, 2023 was also a year of increased violence against foreign workers in Russia. In May 2023, it started with 100 students from Tajikistan being rounded up in their dormitory and severely beaten by law enforcement in Russia. According to eyewitness accounts, law enforcement officials entered the dormitory, locked the entry and exit doors, blocked the cameras, and started to beat all the students. It is unclear why the students were targeted in this incident; according to available accounts if someone dared to ask the reason for the assault they were beaten more. 

Racialized violence was always part and parcel of mobility to Russia, with Tajikistani citizens often bearing the brunt of such violence for no reason other than being representatives of the least protected group. However, such open displays of torture – such as we have seen after the recent attack – were quite shocking. 

Tajikistan citizens tend to be the most marginalized of minority groups in Russia, including in their treatment by law enforcement. As a result, the collective punishment of migrant workers in the aftermath of the tragic attack did not come as a major surprise, unfortunately. Suddenly, rates of deportation increased, people with darker phenotypes were stopped throughout cities by the police, raids and verification intensified. 

We should also note that this is not a specifically “Russian” response. The sadistic revenge meted out by Russian law enforcement, which we all saw in the signs of torture and the videos distributed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, was enabled by the wider legacy of America’s “war on terror.” Regarding the Crocus attack, we can also observe how Western media and experts quickly picked up the story, erroneously labeling ISKP as a “Tajik” organization and looking for specific attributes of Tajikistani citizens while trying to understand their assumed radicalization. The story was wholeheartedly embraced in the West because it all “makes sense” if we will think about the legacies of the war on terror. Russia’s response to the attack was an extension of the Western and global trajectory of Islamophobic violence, not an exception. 

Can you explain some of the myriad ways migrant workers fit into (or not) Russian society? How important is this contingent of workers to the Russian economy?

Russia’s construction, service, and (increasingly) manufacturing sectors heavily rely on the labor of foreign workers. This reliance is enabled by various factors, including, significantly, Russia’s demographic decline. Russia needs workers; the experience of rapid marketization and privatization in the 1990s, which plunged many citizens in Russia to poverty, led to reduced birth rates. According to demographers, millions of people were not born – people who would now be in the workforce. As a result, Russia needs manpower to keep its current infrastructure running – and it also needs to annually attract around 1 million new residents a year to stabilize its ongoing demographic decline. This is unlikely to happen, of course, as migration corridors to Russia are being currently reshaped.

In addition, many sectors of the Russian labor market rely on legally unprotected non-citizens to further their profits and benefit from their work. Labor outsourcing is not unusual in industries that employ non-citizens. This involves contracts being given not to individuals, but to subcontractors, who then hire vulnerable workers, such as non-citizens, and pay them less. This further reinforces the precarity of those “employed” on such contracts. 

Again, this is also not unique to Russia; rather it is a sign of global neoliberalization and the continued proliferation of capitalistic forms of making money through brokerage. We also need to remember that non-citizen labor is a cheaper and more obedient type of labor, especially if you can discipline such labor through harsh migration regulations and police violence. Migrant workers are a particularly vulnerable strata of society in Russia because most migration controls and disciplining practices are happening inside Russia. Visa-free mobility means that it is migration law and violence in migration that are mobilized to “discipline” foreign workers. Both are also mobilized when crisis moments occur, such as we have seen with the reaction to the Crocus attack. 

What role do migrant workers play for Tajikistan – for those who remain in Tajikistan and the Tajik economy more broadly?

In response to this question, many people would probably be quick to note the high remittances to Tajikistan, equivalent to a significant proportion of the country’s GDP. The economy in Tajikistan is extremely dependent on remittances and the foreign currency they bring. 

This, however, would ignore the wider and long-term repercussions of the local population’s mass exodus for migration. There is a remaining Soviet myth of “labor excessiveness” (trudoizbitochnost) in Tajikistan, and local officials are quick to refer to this myth when explaining the need for labor migration to Russia. Every year, according to this discourse, Tajikistan produces 100,000 workers, and the local economy is unable to provide jobs for them; there is no other option but to “export” them to Russia. 

This says more about the local economy and its organization rather than any real excess of labor. Why, for instance, does the Czech Republic not have the same problem of “labor excessiveness”? The Czech Republic also lacks large reserves of natural resources and is of the same population size as Tajikistan. The answer is that they started out with a highly educated population, and their leaders focused on different priorities. 

Instead of trying to run after dreams of migration diversification, Tajikistan’s economy should instead incorporate more of its labor. Schools in Tajikistan are extremely overcrowded: Local teachers are sometimes teaching three full shifts a day; remote schools have no infrastructure in place to bus schoolchildren to schools. Education is just one example where we can observe a lack of qualified people and infrastructure – and where it would be possible to employ a great number of people as teachers, construction workers, bus drivers, and in many other roles.  

But this would require political will and funding – and a rethinking of where labor fits into the Tajikistani economy. Instead, more and more teachers are also emigrating to Russia. 

Labor migration is not the only mode of mobility to Russia, and increasingly entire families relocate to Russia, seeing more educational and economic opportunities there. Such educational and economic opportunities should be available for many in Tajikistan. Migration, and this massive scope of mobility, depletes human capital. The dependency on migrants’ remittances, moreover, further reduces the need for radical economic reforms in the country and the need to address its endemic corruption.  

Some Central Asian states – like Kyrgyzstan – have warned their citizens against migration to Russia right now. Tajikistan, to my knowledge, has not. How should we interpret that decision? To what extent does the Tajik government care about the safety and conditions of its citizens working abroad?

The short answer, sadly, is not much. Only after four weeks had passed since the attacks did Tajikistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs finally criticize the use of torture and brutalization against the suspects, which had been publicly brandished in Russia to show the might of its revenge. This was too little and too late; most of the damage, so to speak, was already done. Initially, the basic principle of the presumption of innocence was not even evoked.

This speaks to the underlying relationship between state and society in Tajikistan: the state has not developed effective mechanisms of promoting and protecting the rights of migrant workers in Russia. The Tajik Embassy in Russia is often simply inaccessible for Tajikistani citizens. Many citizens stand for days in a huge crowd outside of the Embassy, only to be sent out once they get inside to make a copy of a document or correct some minor error. Then they must get back in the line and wait again. 

The scenes of brutalization and the Tajikistani state’s initial refusal to comment on the evident use of torture will only further contribute to the vulnerable position of Tajikistani citizens in Russia. The lack of protection that we have seen over the past decades of racialized abuse speaks volume about the lack of any “social contract” between the Tajikistani state and migrant workers. If there is a contract, it is only one that feeds on migrant labor and their remittances, but which provides no responsibility or protection. 

Of course, there are geopolitical hierarchies and asymmetrical relations between Tajikistan and Russia. This is true and there are objective limits in terms of protecting citizens’ rights in migration. Nonetheless, there is a lot of room for making citizens’ lives easier in migration. Making consular services accessible to the majority of the population in migration or regulating the exorbitant ticket prices to Russia would be a good start, for instance. 

Can you describe, briefly, the regulations and legal framework that govern labor migration between Tajikistan and Russia? Do you see any indication that this system will change?

This is the most difficult question asked of any researcher working on migration to Russia. Russia’s migration legislation is complex and continuously changing. It is, after all, a substitute for a visa regime, and it requires a wide array of laws and mechanisms to enable its infrastructure. 

In general, Russian migration legislation is doing two things at the same time: It criminalizes violations of migration legislation (which is not unique to Russia), and it makes it financially profitable for the state (which is more unique because it relies on direct payments made by migrant workers). 

In 2013 and 2014, a new set of amendments and changes were made to Russia’s existing migration legislation. For instance, in 2013 two articles were added to the Code of Administrative Violations. These legal changes included the introduction of articles 18.8 (part 3 on the violation of rules of entry and stay in Russia) and 18.10 (part 2 on working illegally in Russia). In addition, one of the major changes included the expansion of reasons for entry bans to Russia, which now included legal, administrative, and epidemiological criteria. Having HIV, for instance, now qualifies a person for a permanent ban on entry to Russia. Three paid fines – for example, for the late payment of fees for even phone bills or minor traffic violations – can also lead to a re-entry ban. Living in a place other than a legal residence is another basis for a ban. 

When it comes to monetizing migrant labor, the Russian legislation currently requires all foreign workers to receive a “work permit” (patent), which carries with itself significant monthly fees to the state. To receive a work permit, a person needs to pass Russian language, history, and migration law tests. In addition, they must receive a medical certificate. These are just a few of the changes passed over the last decade, and the law continues to change. In general, trying to understand Russian migration law is like running after a departing high-speed train. You are always falling behind.

In general, these constant changes in the law mean that it is not only extremely costly to be a migrant in Russia, and legally complex, but that people in migration are always deportable and removable from Russia. In my conversations with people who have worked in migration, I frequently have heard how it was often impossible to know whether your stay was completely legal or not. For instance, you don’t only need to pay a monthly fee for your work permit, you also need to send the confirmation of this payment to another agency and for that agency to record the payment. It’s some kind of paperwork circus.

What do you think is missing from the present discourse on Central Asian migrants in Russia?

Yes, absolutely, one such missing element is the perpetual cycle of debt that locks people into migration as a life-long strategy. 

In the “migration and development” imagination there is this myth that workers go into migration, they learn skills, and they return to “develop” their countries. This ignores the high costs associated with mobility. It is not cheap to become a “migrant” almost anywhere. 

To travel to Russia and start working requires a hefty amount of money, which people often borrow from their friends and extended network of family and relatives. You need to pay for expensive international passports (thanks to the West’s promotion of “legibility” and border controls) and exorbitant tickets to Russia (in Tajikistan they are the highest in the region). Those traveling need to purchase warm clothes and leave money for their families. 

When many arrive in Russia, a whole set of new expenses kicks in: work permit associated costs, rent, food, monthly fees for the work permit – and all of these must be paid whether you found a job or not. Migrants are monetized ruthlessly by the whole infrastructure of mobility from Tajikistan to Russia. They borrow to earn relatively little. When many come back home, and more needs arise, there is nowhere else to turn to but to migration. You borrow again and you leave again.