Mass shooting in Belgorod reveals Russia’s forced mobilization of migrants

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Ehson Aminzoda seemed to follow the path of many Central Asian immigrants to Russia – initially working as a bricklayer after arriving in Moscow earlier this year and then at a local restaurant, saving up her modest earnings in hopes of returning to her native Tajikistan to get married. On October 10, he left to meet friends, and was seen leaving Lyublino metro station in southeast Moscow. Then he disappeared.

Five days later, according to Russian authorities, Aminzoda, 24, was in Belgorod, just 24 miles from the Ukrainian border, where he and another man, Mehrob Rakhmonov, 23, allegedly opened fire on a military training base, killing 11 people and injuring 15 others.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the shooting took place during a training session for a group of volunteers “who wanted to participate in the military operation in Ukraine”. Russian authorities quickly labeled the incident a terrorist attack, deliberately highlighting the nationality of the alleged shooters, who were Tajiks.

Officially, little has been released about the shooting, which has been overshadowed by the continued death and destruction of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But rights activists and relatives of the alleged shooters believe they were forcibly recruited. They said the mere presence of the two Tajik men at the Belgorod base indicates widespread abuse against migrant workers in Russia and long-simmering ethnic tensions, which have worsened following the chaotic and much criticized military mobilization. of Russian President Vladimir Putin. .

While many men of fighting age have fled Russia to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine – creating a new reverse migration of Russians to Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan – some migrants in Russia have been drawn in the ranks of the Russian army despite their no obligation to serve.

Some appear to have volunteered to fight, potentially enticed to enlist by a new law offering a “fast track” to Russian citizenship for foreigners who sign a one-year military contract.

In other cases, advocates say, men seeking help from Russia’s Federal Migration Service were tricked into signing military papers, while other migrants were caught up in the botched mobilization campaign. and illegally issued draft orders when they were not Russian citizens.

It is unclear how Aminzoda ended up in Belgorod, which is a major staging ground for the war in Ukraine. Relatives said they had no idea.

“How he ended up in Belgorod, we don’t know,” Ozodi Firuz Aminzoda, a brother of the suspected gunman, told Radio. Tajik Service of RFE/RL. “My brother was not a terrorist and he had no such thoughts. He [was] an ordinary immigrant who wanted to work and build his life. He pointed out that Ehson Aminzoda was not a Russian citizen and therefore not eligible for mobilization.

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The suspected Belgorod shooters disappeared around the same time Moscow authorities began raiding offices and hostels, and catch men in the streets in what seemed like a mad push to achieve the goals of the mobilization. (On Friday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared it over).

Shortly before Putin issued his mobilization decree on September 21, the Russian military opened a recruiting office in Moscow’s main migrant service center. Since the center opened, lawyers and activists say they have been inundated with calls for help from migrants who say they were detained, coerced or tricked into enlisting in the army.

Videos on Ukrainian social media also appear to show Russian prisoners of war who claim to be Central Asian workers and were sent into combat because they did not have their papers in order.

Valentina Chupik, director of Tong Jahoni, a nonprofit that helps Central Asian migrants in Russia, said she received at least 70 requests for help from migrants, with some saying they were beaten and tortured.

According to Chupik, who is based in Yerevan, Armenia, after being deported from Russia, a man from Kazakhstan was loaded into a van, where police beat him, shocked his genitals and forced him to sign a draft order.

The Washington Post could not independently verify Chupik’s account. The alleged victim fled to Kazakhstan and could not be reached.

But other Central Asian migrants living in Russia have said in interviews that they were detained by police and forced to enlist. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to security risks.

A 35-year-old food delivery man from Uzbekistan who has lived in Russia for 15 years, said when he went to the migrant center, officials marked his passport, took his fingerprints and announced without explanation that he had just signed a service contract.

The man said he refused and left the center. He was then apprehended by the police who tried to intimidate him into signing the documents. He was released and is now trying to leave Russia.

“When I first heard the words ‘mobilization’, I didn’t feel anything, because my situation is much worse than any mobilization campaign in Russia,” the man said. “Here, the attitude towards migrants is very harsh.”

He added: “I would never fight in a foreign land and for the sake of foreigners.”

A second man, a 36-year-old Russian-Tajik citizen who works as an electrician and gives legal advice to other migrants in Moscow, said he was arrested during a police raid on the construction site where he works, because of his Caucasian ethnic appearance. The man said he was taken to a police van where officers threatened to beat him and forced him to sign the convocation.

“I’m not going to serve, I’m against it,” he said, adding that he was trying to leave Russia as soon as possible. “Why take someone else’s land for yourself in the first place?”

“But if they catch me again, I will have to serve,” he said. “It’s either that or years in prison.”

The lawyers said that Russian authorities use several methods to pressure migrant workers into enlisting, including falsifying criminal charges against them, promising money and threatening deportation.

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Karimjon Yorov, a Moscow-based lawyer and human rights activist who helps Tajik migrants, said some migrants had registered voluntarily, lured by the promise of money or citizenship, but others had seen their residence permit canceled if they refused to enlist.

Chupik called the brutal methods “a bunch of crimes rolled into one.”

“First is mercenarism, which is prohibited by Russian law,” Chupik said. “Second, when a person is forced to do military service, that is already, of course, a crime, and it is coercion to commit the crime of mercenary. Third, violent crimes would have been committed, including abuse of authority and acts of torture.

Chupik said forcing migrants to fight a war was just the latest example of cruelty and injustice they face in Russia, where they are still in an “extreme position of oppression”.

“Naturally in a war they are the first casualties, because they are defenseless,” Chupik said. “Who will come out for them at a rally? Who will defend them? Who can they complain to so that their voice is heard?

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Military analysts say a disproportionate number of Russian fighters in the war in Ukraine are ethnic minorities from regions outside the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, including Buryatia in Siberia and Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucasus. These regions suffered heavy losses.

Putin had long resisted declaring a mobilization in part to prevent the war from being felt by middle-class Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg who are more likely criticize and resist. However, following the September decree, protests erupted in Dagestan and Yakutia, and governors in several regions acknowledged that many men had been mistakenly mobilized.

A recent report of the Institute of the Study of War, a US-based research group, found that the shooting in Belgorod was likely a consequence of the Kremlin’s “continued reliance” on ethnic minority communities to support the burden of mobilization.

“Ethnic minorities who have been targeted and forced into a war defined by Russian imperial goals and shaped by Russian Orthodox nationalism will likely continue to feel alienated, creating feedback loops of discontent leading to resistance followed by repressions. against minority enclaves,” the report said. “The Belgorod shooting is probably a manifestation of such domestic ramifications.”

Details on the shooting remain scarce. Russian media and war-focused Telegram channels reported that it may have been sparked by an argument between volunteer fighters training at a firing range and a senior officer who made derogatory remarks about Allah.

“I think we won’t know the truth about the shooting or the shooters for a while, if ever, because it’s not in the interests of the military or the state,” Yorov said. lawyer and rights activist. “But the Russian authorities will surely make life even more difficult for migrants in Russia, especially Muslims.”

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