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Moscow's Ethnic Riots Signal Official Xenophobia

When riots hit Moscow on Oct. 13, sparked by a murder for which a migrant worker from the Caucasus was blamed, Russian authorities were forced to make a choice: condemn xenophobia or embrace it. They chose to embrace it. Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow's new mayor, sided with the violent mob of ethnic Russians who attacked the city's migrant workers. Instead of defending the victims, Sobyanin ordered police to arrest hundreds of migrants, and his orders were carried out seemingly at random. Instead of pledging to fix the damaged businesses, Sobyanin ordered them shut for using migrant labor. "It's their own fault," he told reporters after the riots.

His response followed the logic of this summer's mayoral elections, the first to bring xenophobia into mainstream Russian politics. Previously, the elites around President Vladimir Putin had avoided the issue of migrant labor, leaving it to fringe parties and ultranationalists. But Sobyanin, Putin's former chief of staff, made it the core of his campaign, playing on Russians' fears of being overrun by foreign laborers. When he issued several orders throughout August for police to arrest thousands of migrants, critics said he was pandering to the xenophobes. But a month after he won the vote, the mob turned Sobyanin's rhetoric into violence, with many rioters chanting, "Russia for Russians." Muscovites brace for worse to come.


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