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Russia's Ongoing Ethnic Tension Dilemma

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Russian President Vladimir Putin held a discussion on interethnic relations with leading muftis in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan Oct. 22. On the same day, the Russian government endorsed the extension of the period of stay for labor migrants from Tajikistan from one to three years. These developments, which come as ethnic tensions have once again flared in the country in recent weeks, come as the Russian government attempts to stabilize the security environment in the country ahead of the upcoming Sochi Olympics. However, it is likely that achieving a comprehensive resolution to these ethnic tensions will remain elusive for Moscow.

Ethnic tensions have been a dominant feature in Russia in recent years, particularly between ethnic Russians and labor migrants, which primarily come from the Caucasus and Central Asia. The latest bout of violence broke out after an ethnic Russian was killed by an Azerbaijani migrant in a Moscow market on Oct. 13, which led to riots and violence that quickly spread to other parts of the city and country. 

These tensions are rooted in the demographic composure of Russia. Russia is a multiethnic state, with roughly 16 percent of the population of Muslim background — a population that is quickly growing just as the ethnic Russian population is in decline. Furthermore, the country relies on millions of migrants, predominantly from the majority Muslim Caucasus and Central Asia, for economic reasons. But at the same time, many of these migrants come into the country illegally and this has led to frictions between the migrants and the ethnic Russian population. As nationalism has been on the rise in Russia along with anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment, this has created a potentially explosive situation in the country. 

The Russian government has struggled to respond to these incidents, given the sensitive nature of the violence. In the immediate term, authorities have conducted raids on several markets where illegal migrants have operated. Hundreds of people were arrested shortly after the riots, and over 1,200 migrants have been detained over the disturbances. But addressing this issue in a longer term and more comprehensive way has been more difficult. Recently, the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service said that 81 special facilities for illegal migrants must be established in the country, while opposition leader Alexei Navalny has called for the introduction of a visa regime for Caucasus and Central Asian countries.

Putin has so far taken a more nuanced response, as seen in his call for interethnic dialogue in Bashkortostan, a predominantly Muslim region of Russia. Meanwhile, the move to extend the stay for Tajik migrants is reflective of broader strategic considerations for Russia that Putin must balance with the political climate in the country. Along with providing cheap labor for the economy, countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan host a Russian military presence, and the agreement to extend the period of stay for Tajik migrants was made as a result of a deal for Russia to extend the lease of the military base in the country. However, such actions are only likely to further fuel the ongoing tensions between migrants and ethnic Russians in Russia. 

These latest tensions come at a particularly important time for the country. Russia will hold the Winter Olympics in Sochi this February, and the government is interested in clamping down on the security situation ahead of the games. And given that the site is just a few hundred kilometers from the restive North Caucasus (with terrorist attacks another concern for Russia, as seen in the recent Volgograd bombing) the flaring ethnic tensions serve as another complicating factor for Russia to present an image of stability leading up to the games. Achieving such stability is something Russia has struggled with for a long time, and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

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