Central Asians in Russia Face Backlash After IS-K Terror Attack

Washington — Russian media and analysts are reporting a spike in hate crimes and violence against migrants from Central Asia following last week’s terror attack on a Moscow concert hall, which has led to the arrests of seven people of Tajik origin.

Responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 139 people and injured nearly 200, has been claimed by the Islamic State terror group’s Afghan affiliate, known as Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, which includes a number of Central Asians in prominent roles.

“A market owned by Tajiks in Blagoveshchensk, Amur Region, was torched. Unknown persons beat three Tajik migrants in Kaluga,” said Edward Lemon, president of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs in Washington.

“Tajiks have reported being evicted without reason. Screenshots have circulated on social media showing taxi riders on apps like Yandex refusing to ride with Tajik drivers. Law enforcement have launched raids across the country to find and detain illegal immigrants,” Lemon added. “Viral videos are circulating on social media calling for Tajiks to be deported, claiming they are all ‘terrorists’ and calling for the death penalty to be reintroduced.”

Tajiks are not the only victims of the backlash, according to Russian media reports and activists. In Yekaterinburg, security officials have reportedly threatened to fine businesses that refuse to list any Central Asians working for them. Kyrgyzstan has warned its citizens to avoid travel to Russia, while Uzbekistan’s External Labor Migration Agency issued a travel advisory outlining security precautions.

While publicly seeking to lay blame for the attack on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has behind the scenes been in talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, to discuss ways to strengthen counter-terrorism measures. Lemon said that one possible outcome could be the extradition of some Tajik citizens to Russia.

“From the Tajik side, my sources say that the government is already hoping to link the attacks to the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in a bid to crack down on its actual and alleged supporters,” Lemon told VOA.

“Rahmon will seek to ensure that we don’t see mass violence against Tajik migrants in Russia or deportations that could destabilize his regime,” he said. “Putin needs to tread a tightrope as the Russian economy needs migrants.”

Other analysts see Central Asian migrants, who already face a difficult life in Russia despite the vital role they play in the economy, as convenient targets for the public’s discontent.

“It seems that in the end, everything will only come down to the persecution of migrant workers,” said analyst and Gazeta.ru columnist Semyon Novoprudsky.

He told VOA this is happening “despite the fact that they are critically important for some sectors of the Russian economy because of a growing shortage of laborers, especially in construction.”

Boris Dolgin, a visiting scholar at Estonia’s Tartu University, agrees. “Instead of truly engaging in terrorism prevention and working in communities where radical ideas can be spread, they chose migrant workers as scapegoats,” he said.

Farhod Abduvalizade, a journalist speaking with VOA from Khujand, Tajikistan, pointed out that “none of the suspects have been proven guilty.” He said many of his compatriots doubt that the real culprits are the battered and bruised men Russian authorities have been parading on TV.

“The public is closely watching how events are unfolding because almost every household in Tajikistan has someone working or studying in Russia,” he said.

Remittances last year accounted for over 48% of Tajikistan’s GDP, with most of it from Russia — $5.7 billion, according to the World Bank. Combined, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan received about $25 billion in remittances from Russia, where statistics show more than 10 million Central Asians present in the country. 

Central Asian militants in IS-K

University of Pittsburg professor Jennifer Murtazashvili, who has done extensive research in the region, elaborated on the role of IS-K militants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

“They have used Afghanistan as a playground,” she wrote on X. “During the war against the U.S., the Taliban also benefitted from these militants,” with Tajik and Uzbek fighters participating in attacks against U.S. and allied forces.

“These fighters have also skillfully played the Taliban and IS-K off against each other,” she said, recalling that militants from Tajikistan took over large swathes of northern Afghanistan in 2021, killing members of the Afghan national security forces. Some recent reports indicate that the Taliban still rely on Central Asians to provide security in the north.

In its latest statement, IS-K denounced the Taliban’s engagement with Russia, China, Pakistan and other counties, even the United States. Still struggling for recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, the Taliban claim they are at war with the group.

“Central Asia should be worried,” Murtazashvili told VOA. “The alliance of Central Asian leaders with Moscow makes them look very weak in the eyes of IS-K.”

VOA Russian stringer Victor Vladimirov contributed to this report. 

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