The Politics of Moscow's Migrant Crime Statistics

In addition to highlighting local issues, Moscow's mayoral race has generated lively discussions of various national topics. Front and center among these is Russia's immigration and migrant worker policy. Of course, the mayor of Moscow has limited influence over such policy — the large number of migrant workers in Russia is mainly an outcome of visa-free travel agreements with much of the former Soviet Union. This does not stop some candidates [ru] from promising to adopt Moscow-specific immigration controls in the form of passport requirements, or, in the case of opposition front-runner Alexey Navalny [ru], to “make a suggestion” to the federal government to “limit migration.”

A Central Asian janitor cleaning a Moscow street. Many Muscovites would suspect him of being an illegal immigrant. YouTube screenshot.

A Central Asian janitor cleaning a Moscow street. Many Muscovites would suspect him of being an illegal immigrant. YouTube screenshot.

Nevertheless, if immigration itself is largely out of bounds, candidates must find other aspects of the “migrant problem” to address. Last week, in an interview with Echo Moskvy [ru], Navalny spoke about immigrant crime rates, making the somewhat outlandish claim that 50% of all crime in Moscow is committed by migrants. He was immediately fact-checked by liberal journalist Elena Kostyuchenko on her blog [ru].

Kostyuchenko pointed out that the number apparently came from a report that 50% of all crimes are committed by non-native Muscovites — i.e. the number includes Russians living in the Moscow region, and Russia in general, in addition to any migrants. Kostyuchenko did the math, and found that last year the proportion of crimes committed by immigrants was closer to 20% for all crimes, and around 15% for “serious” crimes (administrative crimes like lack of registration disproportionately affects migrants).

When Kostyuchenko aired her grievances on Twitter, Navalny's policy aide, Ruslan Leviev, explained [ru] that the statics used by Navalny came from police district reports, which they feel are more accurate, since the overall official statistics necessarily only include crimes that have been solved. The problem with that, as Kostyuchenko found, is that these reports are calculated on the basis of “witness testimony” — which is inherently problematic.

DemVybor's Vladimir Milov, an unapologetically anti-immigrant politician, blogged [ru] in response to Kostyuchenko:

[…] даже если бы всего 17% преступлений совершались иностранцами – то простой вопрос, а зачем нам здесь иностранцы, которые такое существенное количество преступлений совершают и создают нам криминальную обстановку? Да даже если бы и 3%? Ведь это же очень много, очень существенный довесок к нашей преступности!

[…] even if only 17% of crimes were committed by foreigners, the simple question is why do we need foreigners who commit such a sizable number of crimes and create a criminal environment here? So what, even if it's as low as 3%? This is also a lot, a sizable addition to our crime rates!

Meanwhile, another one of Navalny's comments in the Echo Moskvy interview sparked more discussion. Still on the topic of migration, he said that he if elected mayor he would institute a ban on the public dancing of lezginka, a traditional dance from the North Caucasus often danced at impromptu social gatherings, sometimes on the street. These performances sometimes disturb Muscovites. For example, shortly after the interview aired, journalist Dmitry Bavyrin wrote [ru]:

Вы будете смеяться, но ровно сейчас у меня под окнами началась лезгинка под мобилку и гортанные крики. Считаю это незаконной агитацией за Навального.

You're going to laugh, but right now, outside my window, there is lezginka with cellphone music and throaty cries. I think this is illegal campaigning for Navalny.

Two men dancing the lezginka on a Barnaul street. YouTube screenshot.

Two men dancing the lezginka on a Barnaul street. YouTube screenshot.

Putting to one side the entire concept of banning the dance (rather than, say, disturbing the peace, or making loud noises), Navalny's comment is curious. After all, most of the people dancing lezginka in Moscow aren't immigrants, they are North Caucasians — Dagestani, Chechen, Ingush — i.e. Russian citizens, with as much right to be in Moscow as anyone else. Suddenly it becomes clear that much of the complaints about immigrants in fact stem from internal migration — something that can't be stopped without resorting to Soviet-era movement controls. Alexey Navalny isn't doing anyone any favors by pandering to such obvious fears of the ethnic other, couched in worries about lost Russian jobs and the perils of “illegal migrants.”

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