In Moscow, Being Non-Russian Can Be a Crime

FOR five years in the mid-1980s, Olem, an Afghan citizen, fought for the Soviet-sponsored government in Kabul against Islamic mujahideen rebels.

Long before the Afghan government of President Najibullah fell to the mujahideen in 1991, Olem says he knew his regime was doomed. That is why he fled to Moscow in 1989 - the year the Soviet Army withdrew after a 10-year intervention - hoping to escape retribution when the mujahideen came to power.

Since then, Olem says he acquired a Moscow residency permit and has made a living selling oranges at Moscow's Central Market.

But now Moscow is no longer a safe haven for Olem. In the wake of the crushed October rebellion, and the subsequent crackdown on crime, Olem and thousands of others from Asia and the Transcaucasus are facing persecution by Moscow authorities.

``Police threatened me without legal justification, and said I would be sent back to Afghanistan,'' Olem says. ``They have beaten up and arrested many Azeri vendors here [at the market]. What they are doing is inhuman.''

The persecution started after President Boris Yeltsin's imposition of a state of emergency in the capital Oct. 3. Yet even though the state of emergency expired yesterday, harassment of ethnic minorities and other civil rights abuses appear set to continue for the foreseeable future.

``Certain elements of the state of emergency will be adjusted to promote the fight against crime,'' Yevgeny Savostyanov told the Itar-Tass news agency. For example, heavily armed police will continue to patrol streets after emergency rule is ended.

But Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has said that he has Yeltsin's backing not only to tighten the residency-permit system, but to restrict travelers' access to Moscow as well. The moves, if implemented, would make the capital more inaccessible to Russian citizens than during dictator Joseph Stalin's rule.

Human rights organizations have denounced the residency-permit system, which restricts Russian citizens' ability to move from city to city. Mayor Luzhkov says the permits are needed to keep a lid on rising crime. ``Now, with the help of law and order bodies, we intend to clean up the city,'' Luzhkov says, adding that the new restrictions would prevent people from coming to Moscow to ``make a profit and have a good time.''

MOSCOW law enforcement officials have especially targeted Caucasians, such as Chechens and Azeris, who are widely held responsible for rising crime.

Moscow's farmers' markets were perhaps the most high-profile places of operation for Caucasians, who sold fruits and vegetables grown in their native regions. These days, however, many vendor stalls at farmers' markets are vacant, and prices for fruits and vegetables have skyrocketed.

But Luzhkov makes no amends for racially biased action. He ``hinted that he prefers Russian traders to Caucasians,'' Itar-Tass said. While admitting that the moves may cause a fruit shortage, he said the policies would create more opportunities for ``honest traders from Tambov, Lipetsk, Bryansk, and other places selling traditional Russian produce.''

Central Russian regions, such as those Luzhkov mentioned, grow mostly potatoes and cabbage.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.