Levon, who declines to give his last name, says his visit to Moscow has been a nonstop nightmare of police harassment and extortion, especially whenever he enters Moscow's underground transit system, the Metro.
"The police always check me, and often they detain me claiming my papers are false," says the swarthy, middle-aged Armenian sports trainer. He's spent the past three months in Moscow caring for an ailing family member. "The police only let me go when I pay a bribe, usually about 500 rubles ($18). It happens at least twice a week. Every time I go outside, I feel like I'm heading for some unpleasantness."
Stories like Levon's abound in Moscow, where anecdotal evidence – and a new study – show police routinely single out dark-skinned migrants from former Soviet republics as well as citizens from Russia's own southern regions for document checks that often lead to detention, harassment, and paying of bribes.
Still experts say they are shocked by the results of a new study showing the scope of racial profiling by police in the Moscow Metro. It found that non-Slavs – are almost 22 times more likely to be stopped than those who look like fair-skinned ethnic Russians.
By comparison, a similar survey in the US found that blacks traveling on a New Jersey highway were almost five times more frequently targeted by state police than whites.
"In effect, any non-Slav can expect to be treated like an illegal alien by Moscow police," says Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the Sova Center, a nonprofit group that works on civil rights issues. "The growing xenophobia in society is bad enough, but it's clearly much worse in the police. Something urgently needs to be done."
Experts say the study results are particularly disturbing at a time when hate crimes by skinhead and neo-Nazi groups are rising. Ms. Kozhevnikova, whose organization tracks ultra-nationalist activities, says that 18 people have been killed and 147 injured in racist attacks in Russian cities so far this year.
The United Nations special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diene, told a Moscow press conference last week that Russia is suffering from a post-Communist "ideological vacuum" which aids the proliferation of xenophobic and racist ideas. During his visit to Russia, he met with resident Africans, Roma, and other minorities who told him they are regular targets of violence.
The study, in which monitors observed more than 1,500 police document checks at 15 Metro stations over a five-month period in 2005, concluded that Moscow police are engaged in "massive ethnic profiling." The practice is unlawful discrimination, a violation of the equal rights of citizens under the Russian Constitution and the country's international commitments. For example, the United Nations Race Convention prohibits racial discrimination with respect to "freedom of movement," and guarantees the "right to equal treatment" by judicial officials.
Anita Soboleva, executive director of Jurix, the lawyers' group that conducted the survey with funds from George Soros' Open Society Institute, says "Police ethnic profiling reflects social attitudes against people who look 'different.' This racist approach appears to be deeply ingrained in police procedures."
While many of the estimated 3 million "migrant" workers in Moscow come from former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Asia – and even as far afield as China and Vietnam – many others are members of Russia's own 20 million-strong Muslim community. The study suggests that Moscow police treat all non-Slavs alike, whether Russian citizens or not. "The danger here is that non-Slavs are made to feel themselves second-class citizens in the capital of their own country," says Olga Schedrina, a researcher at the government's Institute of Sociology in Moscow.
At one downtown Moscow Metro stop covered in the study, non-Slavs were 85 times more likely to be stopped than fair-skinned people. "We're very concerned that police conduct toward non-Slavs... will reinforce social prejudices. People think, 'if the police do it, that must be right,' " Ms. Soboleva says.
Police and state officials have been given copies of the study, released this month, but have yet to comment on it. The authors say that identification-checking sweeps through Metro stations not only raise social tensions, they appear to be a misuse of resources in the battle against crime and terrorism: Only 3 percent of the 1,500 checks witnessed by survey monitors found any kind of infraction, in most cases very minor ones.
"We hope to dialogue with the police about this, because it seems certain that their energies could be better spent," says Soboleva. "Defenders of police practices usually say this approach is because of the high rate of ethnic crime, but no statistics back this up. Nor is there any evidence that these document checks of the population have ever slowed down any terrorist actions. It's not clear they have any good purpose at all."
Russian police have the right to check anyone's ID, and hold him or her for up to three hours while documents are verified. Even the slightest problem, such as lack of Moscow residential registration, can lead to detention of up to 48 hours.