Spoof has Moscow's mayor in a spot

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THE LIBERAL Russian newspaper Izvestia yesterday made the following modest proposals: Moscow police need 'ethnic anthropology' classes to teach them how to spot foreigners; Muscovites need a strict dress code to distinguish true natives from outsiders.

'Some foreigners,' the paper continued, 'disguise themselves by hiding their hair under hats, their eyes behind dark glasses and their noses in their scarves saying it is cold. We must be vigilant: aliens are everywhere.'

The article was a spoof. The issue its addresses, though, is real: a set of rigid restrictions, including a per- day head tax, imposed on visitors from former Soviet republics by Moscow's Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

The new rules, introduced on Monday ostensibly to combat crime, have already provoked howls of protest, though in reality they merely strengthen an existing, albeit rarely enforced, system of control. Commersant Daily accused Mr Luzhkov, a pugnacious ally of President Boris Yeltsin, of reckless populism based on 'the norms of the Middle Ages'.

Mr Luzhkov cultivates the image of a can-do mayor unafraid of ruffled feathers. 'Each country has its own order. This is ours. We have too many foreigners,' said Vladimir Brykov, a spokesman for the mayor's office, yesterday.

Police officials have for months demanded tight controls on the flow of visitors from former Soviet repubulics, including an end to visa-free entry. Viktor Seroshan, a senior Interior Ministry official, claims that non-Russians from the Caucasus and Far East account for 40 per cent of all crime.

Such figures strengthen widespread prejudice and have made barely disguised racism an irresistible political weapon, particularly as Russia faces parliamentary elections next month.

Mr Luzhkov won plaudits last month when he used a two-week state of emergency to deport non- Russians. Russia, he said, could skip pomegranates and persimmons in favour of 'good Russian products'. Helsinki Watch estimates that some 9,000 people, many of them traders from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, were booted out. The mayor also opposes the abolition of propiskas, a Stalin-era system of residency permits phased out in most parts of Russia.

Under Monday's rules, residents of former Soviet republics - known as 'near abroad' - must register and pay a fee of 34,830 roubles (some pounds 20) every 45 days. This costs time as well as money, requiring visits to a local police station, a branch of the state savings bank and a second visit to the police.

Responding to the protests, and to prevent a populist ploy backfiring, Mr Luzhkov yesterday modified the rules, allowing a long list of exemptions including refugees and the handicapped, visitors seeking medical treatment as well as scientists, performing artists and others on official invitations.