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Russia pulls the migrant welcome mat

Illegal immigrants are targeted in a campaign critics say is likely to boost produce prices and corruption.

February 22, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The butcher is breaking spare ribs with an ax across the aisle and Bafo Zhamurov, a speck of a man in a cavernous market, is convinced he'll be selling his dried apricots here for a long time.

But the fruit stand vendor from Tajikistan faces a threat from a new government regulation that forbids shops and market stalls to hire foreigners after April 1. It is the latest attempt by a Russia echoing with preelection populist rhetoric and nationalist zeal to stem an illegal migrant population estimated at 10 million.

Zhamurov is like thousands of immigrants: a single man from a former Soviet state trying to make the living here that he can't make at home. He smiles, a nervous vendor in a tenuous job, speaking in contradictions over bins of nuts and sacks of snow-dusted fruit. Other illegal migrants wander the streets in disguise, carrying shovels and wearing orange overalls to avoid deportation by falsely suggesting they are public employees.

"We don't feel harassment or hatred by the Russians," Zhamurov said. "But certainly, these days the police are stopping us more and checking our documents. You can look around the market now. It's emptier than it used to be. Many of the traders have already started traveling back to their native countries."

Passions over illegal immigration have grown in recent years, notably from increasing numbers of Chinese and Vietnamese moving into eastern Russia. The new law was inspired in October when President Vladimir V. Putin called on parliament to "protect the native population" working in fruit and vegetable markets, where at least 45% of workers are immigrants.

"It's obvious that with 6.5 million jobless Russians, there is no need to have foreign market traders here," said Alexander Belov, leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration. "The attitude of Muscovites toward nonresident aliens can be characterized by two Russian words: ponayekhali [they came in large numbers] and dostali [we are sick and tired of them]."

Beginning this year, foreigners were denied jobs in shops selling alcohol and pharmaceuticals.

The new regulations also cut by 40% the number of immigrants employed in markets; by April 1, all foreigners without residency permits will be locked out of such jobs. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and other Asian vendors have reportedly left the east, and Moscow's markets have noticeably thinned.

Limiting foreigners may placate conservative politicians and improve government oversight on a vast network of shadow citizens. But critics say it is likely to push up produce prices and add new layers of corruption between authorities and merchants shrewd and desperate enough to bring their goods to market.

"We'll have a lot of empty stalls," said Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of the Social Policy Center at the Institute of Economics in the Russian Academy of Sciences. "What worries me is that prices will go up and the very poor and the pensioners won't be able to afford things. It's like the U.S. -- you're afraid that everyone will one day be speaking Hispanic languages. Russians are scared they'll all be speaking Chinese if the borders are kept open."

The journey that brought Eduard Mirzoyan to his stall at a market in central Moscow is balanced between persistence and misfortune. Ethnic unrest chased him from Azerbaijan and out of a job in a furniture factory. He returned to his native Armenia, but an earthquake made him a refugee a second time. He ended up in Moscow five years ago, selling pastry, beer and spices across from a tank of carp and a girl twisting flowers.

A few weeks ago, he thought he had found a way to beat the new immigration rules: He hired a Russian woman to stand at the counter while he and his son slipped into the background. It was another false front, but in this nation a clever veneer and a scurrilous bit of paperwork are sometimes all one needs.

"But she quit after two days," he said. "These Russians just want high pay and weekends off. They don't want to work so hard. I'm an entrepreneur. I need to make money. If we lose this stall here, we'll have to find another way outside Russia. We'll become wandering gypsies and pilgrims. That's how it is when you've lost your homeland."

Russia stretches like a rumpled carpet from the fringes of Europe to the Sea of Japan. But its population of 140 million is quickly shrinking, and the insecurity of being overrun by foreigners has found its way to the marketplace, where for years Russians have mingled with the Tajiks bagging their vegetables, Georgians slicing their fish and Uzbeks weighing their mushrooms. Mirzoyan has a question about this: "What will this new Russia look like when we're gone?"

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