Alleged racism in the Russian police force leaves Central Asian and Caucasian immigrants vulnerable to a rising tide of skinhead violence.
By Sanobar Shermatova in Moscow, Kamiljon Ashurov in Yekaterinburg, Galima Bukharbaeva in Tashkent and Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek
The escalation in attacks on foreigners living in Moscow has prompted seven Central Asian and Caucasian republics to call on the Russian government to do more to curb skinhead violence.
Their consuls told the Russian foreign ministry that complaints of harassment were increasing and that the "so-called day of remembrance" for Adolf Hitler on April 20 - the Nazi dictator's birthday - organised by right-wing groups "provokes our concern". The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on April 18 that improved security had become "a matter of urgency".
The diplomats' call followed a series of e-mails sent to several foreign embassies, including the United States, warning of a "war on foreigners".
On April 15, Abdul Hakim Hakziri, a Russian of Afghan origin working as an interpreter for the Moscow regional migration service, was beaten to death in a racist attack. A Congolese colleague was injured in the same incident.
Human rights groups from the region claim, however, that racism in the police force itself is one of the most serious problems facing people from Central Asia and the Caucasus in Russia.
Gaukhar Juraeva, chair of the Tajikistan human rights foundation, claims Tajik market traders experience routine harassment by the police. "The most notorious is Moscow police department No 51, which monitors the Cherkizovsky market, where up to 3,000 Tajiks work as handlers," she said.
According to Juraeva, one officer who "specialized in dealing with Tajiks" is notorious for his cruelty and abuse of foreigners.
A young Uzbek labourer from Kokand told IWPR that he and his colleagues expected visits from the police every payday. "If you don't give them money they can beat you up," he said.
Many recent immigrants are illegal, working as seasonal labour, or on temporary contracts. Their status prevents them from bargaining about pay and conditions and leaves them no means of redress if they are abused.
Juraeva believes the Tajik situation is particularly poor because they had no substantial presence in Russia's big cities before the Soviet Union collapsed.
She estimates that 40,000 Tajiks live in Moscow, most working on poor pay as construction workers, or in the markets.
Obtaining registration documents for legal residency is complex and often involves expensive bribes. Earning little money and with limited networks to fall back on, getting such papers is difficult.
It is not only in Moscow that immigrants face racial harassment. The large Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in Siberia confront similar problems.
Melis Karybekov, a Kyrgyz doctor who recently returned from Novokuznetsk, in Siberia, said local police targeted people from Central Asia. "The police turn up and raid places where Kyrgyz people gather at any time of day," he said.
Almost 500,000 Kyrgyz live and work in Russia. Alongside students in the major cities, thousands are employed in the so-called "shuttle trade", transporting goods to and from Central Asia.
But it is the violent attacks by skinhead gangs that cause most concern. Erik Beyshenbiev, an official at the Kyrgyz foreign ministry, said Kyrgyz students in Moscow and St Petersburg reported a marked increase in racist violence in April.
On April 25, a senior Moscow police official announced that 392 right-wing extremists had been detained over a five-day security operation surrounding Hitler's birthday. The same day, Russia's President Vladimir Putin condemned racist violence in his state-of-the-nation address.
"The growth of extremism is a serious threat to stability and public security in the country," Putin said. "We are referring first of all to those who under fascist and nationalist slogans and symbols organise pogroms and beat and kill people, while police and prosecutors lack effective instruments to punish the organisers and instigators of such crimes."
Over the weekend of April 20 police shut down outdoor markets and kiosks run by ethnic minorities across the capital to pre-empt racially-motivated attacks. The previous year a large gang of neo-Nazis rampaged through one outdoor market in the city, causing serious damage.
This year, Hitler's birthday passed off without large-scale violence. Police officials accused the media of exaggerating fears and stoking up tension.
Russia's interior minister, Boris Gryzlov, meanwhile announced a clampdown on illegal immigration. He said on April 24 that police would start making thorough checks of all foreigners "to determine whether they are living in the country legally".
Since Putin abolished the Migration Service and Nationalities Ministry, immigration issues have become the preserve of the interior ministry. Human rights groups have criticised the move, accusing the police of bias against foreigners.
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia, No. 118, May 2, 2002