MOSCOW — Thousands of Russians have fled their homes in Soviet Central Asia over the last six months, afraid of becoming the next victims of growing anti-Russian violence and giving still more proof of the ethnic tensions that threaten to tear this country apart.
On Saturday, the labor newspaper Trud revealed that 23,000 people have fled Dushanbe and other cities in the republic of Tadzhikistan since February, when riots by Tadzhiks, stirred up by rumors of more outsiders arriving, claimed the lives of 18 people.
In Tuva, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation that borders Mongolia, about 3,000 people have left their homes since the beginning of the year to escape strife between Russian-speakers and ethnic Tuvinians. In the village of Elegest, a young man was killed when he failed to respond in Tuvinian when asked, "Do you have a smoke?"
In Tuva, Russians have been attacked in the streets, and their homes have been burned to the ground. The resulting Russian flight is one in a string of ethnic problems that continue to plague President Mikhail S. Gorbachev as he attempts to unite his diverse country behind his reforms and create a new union of "sovereign states."
Although many of the Russians living in Central Asia can trace their families' roots in the area to the days of czarist colonization, the vast majority cannot speak local languages such as Tadzhik, which is related to Farsi, or Tuvinian, a Turkic dialect.
Until recently, the Russian language was forced on non-Russian republics, subjugating local languages. The Islamic religion that predominates in Central Asia also was repressed under Soviet rule, and many of the native customs were strongly discouraged.
This all bred resentment of the Russians, who were considered occupiers, even if they brought higher standards of education, health care and respect for the rights of women.
Expression of that resentment toward locally born Russians or migrants, many of whom held the best jobs and had the highest living standards, was suppressed during most of Soviet rule. But since Gorbachev has relaxed the iron grip of the government, ethnic strife has increased.
"In Dushanbe, almost half of the population is Russian-speaking," Trud said. "Many were born here and grew old here. But they don't have a command of the (local) language. Alas, but until now this was not demanded of them. What is the sin of these people?"
Now, pogroms against migrants, anti-Russian rioting and individual acts of violence are driving out the Russians. Moscow-based officials are treating the problem with great seriousness. Russian Federation Prime Minister Ivan Silayev personally met last week with leaders of the Tuva area to discuss the growing interethnic strife and said he planned to visit there.
Kakhar Makhkamov, the first secretary of the Tadzhik Communist Party, told Trud that if the situation does not improve, the number of people fleeing his republic could soon reach 80,000. About 10% of Tadzhikistan's 5 million people are Russians.
Some local authorities, however, refuse to admit there is a problem and try to explain away the exodus by contending that the Russians are leaving for family reasons.
Many of the incidents of violence are sparked by unemployment and homelessness among the native peoples, who often blame Russians for their misfortune and sometimes seek revenge.
"Not only in Dushanbe, but in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people, there is a state of emergency," Trud said.
In Dushanbe in February, homeless Tadzhik youths rioted after they heard that Armenians fleeing ethnic violence in Azerbaijan were going to be resettled in prime apartments in housing-short Tadzhikistan.
Incidents of unprovoked violence strike fear into the hearts of Russian residents.
"I'm afraid for my daughter, for myself. At night we listen to every rustle outside. Should we leave or not?" a Russian living in Tuva asked a reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Communist youth daily.
Many Russians have already decided--they've left. Engineers, doctors, teachers and workers are among those who have joined the exodus, and Tuva's enterprises are already suffering from a shortage of specialists, the government newspaper Izvestia said.
"The situation was such that our miners had to be accompanied to work by detachments of policemen," the director of a cobalt mine told the newspaper. "When the protection was taken away, the flight started."
Two months ago a group of Tuvinians set fire to several homes belonging to Russians in Elegest and stoned the people who lived there as they helplessly watched their belongings go up in flames, Komsomolskaya Pravda said.
When suspects in that case were sentenced, local people took Tuva's deputy minister of internal affairs hostage. He was not freed until the arsonists were released pending appeal.
"With these events going on in the republic, no one can guarantee the safety of Russian-speakers beyond the Sayans," the newspaper said, referring to the mountain range that separates Tuva from the rest of the Russian Federation.