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Central Asian migrants change the face of Moscow

Sunday - 12/30/2012, 2:28am  ET

Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) - Timur Bulgakov has a black belt in karate, two university degrees, a powerful SUV and a small yet thriving construction company. The 28-year-old's success is impressive for a Muslim migrant from Uzbekistan whose first job in Moscow 10 years ago was as a delivery boy.

But his story is no longer that unusual.

The old Moscow, populated largely by Slavs, is rapidly giving way to a multi-ethnic city where Muslims from Central Asia are the fastest growing sector of the population. And they are changing the face of Moscow as their numbers rise and they move up the career ladder, taking on more visible roles in society.

Muslim women wearing hijabs are a growing sight on the capital's shopping streets. Bearded men sport Muslim skullcaps and hang trinkets with Koranic verses in their cars. Many more are non-practicing Muslims who blend in with secular attire, although their darker skin, accented speech and foreign customs often provoke frowns from native Muscovites. Meanwhile, their children _ some born and raised in the capital _ throng kindergartens and schools.

Russia's Federal Migration Service estimates that about 9.1 million foreigners arrived in Russia to work in 2011. More than a third came from three impoverished Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: About 2 million from Uzbekistan, 1 million from Tajikistan and more than 500,000 from Kyrgyzstan. Local experts say the number of Central Asian arrivals is at least twice as high. And hundreds of thousands of Central Asians have already acquired Russian passports and are off the migration services' radar.

The Central Asian migration has been the driving force in boosting Russia's Muslim population to more than 20 million, from some 14 million 10 years ago _ a phenomenon experts call one of the most radical demographic makeovers Russia has ever seen.

"Today, we're standing on the verge of a powerful demographic explosion, a great migration period equal to the one that took place in the first centuries A.D.," said Vyacheslav Mikhailov, a former minister for ethnic issues and a presidential adviser on ethnic policies.

Muslims are expected to account for 19 percent of Russia's population by 2030, up from 14 percent of the current population of 142 million, according to the U.S. government's National Intelligence Council report on global trends published this month.

"Russia's greatest demographic challenge could well be integrating its rapidly growing ethnic Muslim population in the face of a shrinking ethnic Russian population," the report said. The changing ethnic mix "already appears to be a source of growing social tensions."

By the most conservative estimates, 2 million Muslims now live in Moscow, a city of nearly 12 million.

Polls show that nearly half of Russians dislike migrants from Central Asia and Russia's Caucasus _ another source of Muslim migration. They have become the bogeymen of Russian nationalists, accused of stealing jobs, forming ethnic gangs and disrespecting Russian customs.

"If you build a mosque in downtown Moscow, slaughter sheep on your holiday and impose your traditions on us, no one will want you as a neighbor," said Dmitry Demushkin, a veteran Russian neo-Nazi skinhead who heads a nationalist party.

Central Asian labor migrants for years have filled the lowest paying jobs, working as janitors, street cleaners, construction workers, vendors at outdoor markets and unlicensed cab drivers whose run-down cars are popularly known as "jihad taxis." Many live in trailers on construction sites, in squalid basements and overcrowded flophouses or sleep inside their cars. The uncertain legal status of many of the migrant workers has left them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers. They also have fallen victim to xenophobic attacks.

But in recent years, they are increasingly becoming more established members of the work force. And a significant minority, like Bulgakov, now run their own successful businesses.

The undisputed star among Russia's Central Asian business figures is ethnic Uzbek Alisher Usmanov: His interests in mining, telecoms and Internet startups have made him one of Russia's richest men, with a fortune estimated at $18.1 billion, and he is the co-owner of British soccer club Arsenal.

Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in Kazakhstan and educated in Uzbekistan, has directed some of Russia's most top grossing movies. Recently he moved to Hollywood, directing this year's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and before that "Wanted," a 2008 action flick with Angelina Jolie.

Uzbek native Mirzakarim Norbekov has penned half a dozen bestsellers based on the medical teachings of Muslim medieval scholar Avicenna, who was born in what is now Uzbekistan. His medical training center in Moscow charges hundreds of dollars for short healing courses.

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