Refugees find no welcome at home: Out of Russia

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Buried in gloomy statistics about the Russian economy reported to parliament this week by the government's chief economist, Yegor Gaidar, there were some alarming figures about the rising number of Russian 'refugees'.

These are people who have been uprooting themselves from distant states of the former Soviet Union and becoming refugees in their native land. The total so far is 460,000, Mr Gaidar reported, and growing fast. Of these, 50,000 had come in the last month alone from the tiny province of Abkhazia in western Georgia, where a guerrilla war is raging, 30,000 were from Kazakhstan, 13,000 from Kyrgyzstan, and so on. Refugee villages are being constructed in southern Russia to cope with the influx.

There are millions of Russians still living outside Russia's boundaries - 10 million in Ukraine, for example, 6 million in Kazakhstan, 2 million in Uzbekistan, 1 million in Belarus and more than half a million in Estonia.

As the former Soviet states move towards greater independence, or become embroiled in conflict, Russians flee. However, so far, the Russian government has no organisation, no laws, to cope with them. For example, the Black Sea resort of Sochi has become a transit point for refugees from the Caucasus wars - in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - but help for them is minimal.

Only the disabled, pensioners, women and children get food coupons and lodging and then only for three days. Refugee status is granted to no one, and residence permits are given only to those who have close relatives in Sochi. In short, they are treated as foreigners. Apart from the horrendous hardships suffered by all refugees, returning Russians must also face rising nationalism that promises to make their lives even more uncomfortable.

In Moscow, a disgusting little nationalist newspaper called Black Hundred, which is being sold in underpasses and on the metro, calls on true Russian patriots to have nothing to do with people who have odd combinations of names, such as Ostashvili-Stolzenberg- Smirnov. Such a name would suggest the person is of Georgian, German and Russian origin, in that order. Many Russians returning from distant states of the former Soviet Union have inter-married and are almost bound to have some combination of names reflecting where their family has spent the last few decades.

In St Petersburg, vigilante units formed by nationalist and local police supposedly to fight crime are often found with slogans that blame rising public disorder on 'aliens'.

One of the largest groups inside Russia likely to give the refugees a hard time is the Cossacks. They were the traditional tsarist guards: a third of the 4.5 million Cossacks were slaughtered by the Bolsheviks. With the rise of nationalism they are making a comeback, especially in southern Russia, where most of them live and where most of the refugees are gathering.

The Cossacks have made it clear they do not trust the refugees. Cossack units have been fighting to defend Russians in the Dnestr conflict in Moldova and have been doing some freelance guarding of the Russo- Georgian border. Cossack leaders in southern Russia have demanded the deportation of the thousands of Armenians who have been fleeing the conflict in the disputed Azerbaijan territory of Nagorny Karabakh.

In the wave of nationalism throughout the former Soviet empire, it is not only Russians wanting to return home who are in trouble. Other ethnic groups that were forced to stay in Russia and now want to return to their native land are also facing new barriers.

Requirements for Russian Germans wanting to go home are getting stiffer, according to reports. They must now prove they are German in origin as well as in spirit. German officials, wary of Russians with German-sounding names wanting to take the opportunity to pick up a German government hand-out allocated to refugees, are asking potential emigrants about their intentions to participate in German society and about keeping up national family traditions. 'Preservation of the German identity' is the official German term for it.