An Azerbaijani selling nuts and dried fruit in Moscow, home to a growing migrant population from the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia. Photo: Alexander Kruglov

On a freezing Sunday morning in blizzard-struck Moscow, where locals are tightly wrapped in winter hat coats and scarves, the huge Afimol Shopping Center offers a different world. Sprawling along a bustling river-side district, it offers everything deep-frozen Muscovites crave – swimming pools, saunas, palm-tree-lined avenues, and endless shops and restaurants.

It’s not just the new mall’s interior that recalls warmer lands. Afimol is a popular hang-out for laborers and migrants with darker skins than cold-weather Slavs. Most are young, 20-something men, but there are girls too. The majority hail from Central Asia, from the Muslim-Turkic republics of the old Silk Roads and the former Soviet Union.

On weekends in malls, they probably outnumber ethnic Russians.

Moscow’s lure

Moscow is not noted for multiculturalism, but like Western capitals, is looking increasingly cosmopolitan. This is thanks largely to an influx of foreign laborers locals call “gastarbaitery,” or guest workers, borrowing from the German word.

It started in the late 1990s when Russia’s economy was rising and the ruble was strong, trading at 28 per dollar. Since 2014, following Crimea’s annexation and Western sanctions, the economy has slowed, and the ruble has plunged to 69 to the dollar.  Yet the guest workers remain.

For impoverished Tajiks or Kyrgyz whose home countries are plagued by crises, insurgencies, ethnic strife and high unemployment, Moscow is a promised land.

Home to Russia’ big spenders, the city and its 10-million populace appears as prosperous as ever. According to some, Moscow offers the best shopping in Europe, with more mall space than London or Paris, while welfare programs, including free schooling and some free medical care, lures families with children.

When Moscow’s multi-ethnic character and Muslim community are taken into account, the city qualifies as a top destination for CIS migrants.

The Kyrgyz

The largest number, by far, come from the landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan, home to about six million people: 70% local Kyrgyz, plus large Russian and Uzbek minorities.

Ironically, more Kyrgyz now live in Russia than in Kyrgyzstan, while in in their homeland there are over a million ethnic Russians. Many Kyrgyz fled the country in the 1990s, after bloody strife and economic decline. But since Moscow and Bishkek signed a “free movement” agreement that allows Kyrgyz to stay in Russia visa-free and work, a huge army of young and jobless youth Kyrgyz descended upon Moscow.

Hotels, shops and restaurants need Russian-speaking staff with low pay expectations. Kyrgyz met these criteria, and are seen as hard-working and dutiful with a strong communal sense. Across Moscow, Kyrgyz salesgirls and waiters are ubiquitous.

A manager at the discount “Grabli” restaurant chain in Moscow proudly said all check-out girls are Kyrgyz. “They can easily talk to one another, and help each other, so it’s a very efficient formula,” he said. “We count on the Kyrgyz for brisk sales and efficiency.”

Toolukbek Akynov is a security staffer at the Diksi Supermarket. He said he graduated from the prestigious Kyrgyz National University, but couldn’t find work, so moved to Turkey. Things did not work out.  “My job was eventually taken by an Azeri guy. Turks prefer to hire Azeris, they are neighbors,” he said. So, Toolukbek went back to Bishkek, and a year later, to Moscow.

“Here, we Kyrgyz feel more at home – we were the same country for so long,” he said. “So many things are similar here. Besides, the pay is better than in Turkey, and there’s a huge Kyrgyz community here.”

According to statistics, more than 80% of all Kyrgyz working abroad are in Russia while only 10% are in Turkey.

Zhainagul is a waitress at the Coffee House cafe chain. She said salaries are high, compared to home, but living conditions are poor. “Me and my friend tried to rent a room downtown, near my workplace, but it’s just too expensive and many Russians are refusing to rent to Kyrgyz,” she said. “We had to settle for a dormitory room with five more Kyrgyz. It’s too crammed, but there is no choice. “

Parallel world

“There are hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and illegal immigrants in Moscow,” Ekaterina Demintseva, director of the Social Policy Research Center of the Moscow Higher School of Economics, told Asia Times. “Moscovites have long got used to them. But locals and foreigners are living in different, parallel worlds. They don’t understand each other and don’t even try.”

Migrants have their own hospitals, kindergartens and even discotheques. More than 30 Kyrgyz and Uzbek hospitals and maternity houses cater to immigrants only.

“Most immigrants in Moscow are Muslims, just like in any European country,” Demintseva, who researches the migrant communities, said. “There are four major mosques in Moscow, but many more unofficial prayer rooms.”

Migrants spend days off at the mall, Demintseva points out, but don’t spend – they can’t afford to. They take photos and proudly send them to relatives back home.

But many grow disillusioned with their cramped accommodation and lifestyle. They also face employer abuse.

Round the communities

Uzbeks are prominent in the construction industry, where their living conditions are perhaps the worst among Moscow’s migrants. Many dwell in unheated steel containers. Still, it may be worthwhile. One told Asia Times, after six months of hard labor and miserable conditions, he can buy a house in the southern Uzbek countryside.

Tajik girls do the dirtiest work in Moscow, ending up cleaning, sweeping floors and washing dishes. But even that delivers money to families and relatives in Tajikistan, the poorest of the ex-Soviet states.

Other communities have their own specialties.

Armenians, one of the wealthiest groups, run restaurants and small grocery stores, Georgians run or work in Georgian restaurants while others are taxi drivers.

Many Ukrainians work as bus drivers or domestic helpers. Those fleeing the Donbass violence are ethnic Russians so they enjoy certain privileges, such as the chance to quickly get a Russian passport.

Many thousands of ethnic Koreans have moved to Russia from the Islamic Central Asian republics. These Russian speakers were deported to Central Asia from the Russian Far East by Stalin in the 1930s. But now they choose to live in central Russia, and many hold Russian passports.

Not all immigrants are from the former Soviet Union. There are tens of thousands of Chinese staying and working in Moscow, mostly from northern China, which borders Russia. They arrive daily on the Moscow-Beijing train.

South Koreans are also prominent, particularly since the two countries introduced two-month visa-free entry rights in 2014. In Moscow’s Korston Hotel, there are over a dozen Korean eateries, barbershops and stores. There is also a Korea-speaking taxi service and two Korean-language daily newspapers.

There is a sizable, colorful Indian community, but the largest migrant groups, apart from the CIS, are Turks and Arabs, running small businesses, food stores, restaurants and kebab shops.

Nascent backlash

The migrant influx has apparently caught Russian authorities off guard. In public, there is a growing backlash.  Moscow’s mosques occasionally face noisy protests, and security officials fret that most immigrants are Muslims, fueling fears of ethnic tensions and extremism.

Predictably, politicians have moved. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, froths on TV shows that unless Russia strictly limits migrant numbers, Moscow will soon be a Muslim city. Zhirinovsky calls Jean-Marie Le Pen, the grand old man of the French National Front his “good old friend” and the duo love discussing the “Islamization” of Russia and France.

Moscow still doesn’t have the kind of purely Muslim suburbs and migrant ghettos that Paris does – which is something Russian authorities fear. And at present, Moscow’s immigrant communities are quiescent. Current conflicts, notably Russia’s role in Syria, could change that.

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