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Nazhamud fidgets at a rickety desk thrusting his head back and forth, lamenting his troubles. The Moscow police constantly harass him, stop him to check if he has a residency permit, and fine him when he can’t produce one. Nazhamud is a Russian citizen from Chechnya; his home and life in the war-torn capital of Grozny were destroyed during the 1994-95 war with Russia. Nazhamud fled north in search of a better life.

Nazhamud says he is stopped every where he goes because he does not have registration papers.
But Moscow is an inhospitable refuge to Nazhamud and those who need its help the most. The city’s affluence stands in contrast to most of Russia and the former Soviet Union, making it a magnet for those suffering through war and economic ruin.

Only a small white slip of paper with a stamp stands between the hundreds of thousands of “transient” visitors to Moscow each year and a legal life in Moscow. It’s called a "propiska," a residency permit which the local government wields like the bronze sword of the city’s mythic founder, Yuri Dolgoruki, to beat back undesirables.

Although the constitutionality of Moscow’s practice is questionable, a propiska is mandatory in order to reside legally in this city and has become a privilege to those lucky enough have been born here or savvy enough to have attained one on the sly.

“I do not have a propiska,” a frustrated Nazhamud says. “I am being tortured by this propiska. In every passage way and metro, they stop me — everywhere,” Nazhamud fumes.

‘Propiska’ pandemonium
Without a propiska you can’t vote, work legally or receive state social or medical services, though you still have the privilege of paying taxes for them. Nor can proposka--less Muscovites send their children to school, get a driver’s license or legally rent a hotel room or apartment. As the ultimate insult, you can’t even be buried in Moscow unless you have the pass.

“I was on my way to get some advice on propiska, and I asked a policeman for directions. Instead of helping me, he took me to the 170th police station,” Nazhamud said. “I sat there for three hours and had to pay [a fine].”

Svetlana Gannushlina, co-chair of civic assistance
Nazhamud, at his wit’s end, turned for help to Civic Assistance, where he met its founders, Svetlana Ganushlina and Alexandra Shakevich. Civic Assistance provides legal advice for refugees and migrants who need registration in Moscow. Most of those who have turned to Civic Assistance are from Central Asia and the Caucasus — places engulfed in war and poverty.

Ganushlina and Shakevich have come up with a unique, though by no means permanent, solution to the propiska problem. After informing people of their rights, they hand them a pseudo-document that literally asks police not to fine the bearer for lacking a propiska, because they are only temporarily residing in Moscow. The document has proved highly effective, Ganushlina says, because the police know the bearers now have connections.

Constitutionality ignored
Moscow’s propiska system has ignited truculent debate over its constitutionality. Article 27 of the Russian Constitution states that “... each person legally staying on the territory of the Russian Federation enjoys freedom of travel and may freely choose the place of sojourn and residence.”

But many human rights organizations argue that Moscow’s registration system not only contradicts the constitution, but also violates basic human rights and amounts to direct control over people. Moscow’s absolutist Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has ignored criticism and stated repeatedly that registration is necessary to prevent massive migration to the city.

Ganushlina says she does not refute the constitutionality of simple registration. “If we are only talking about when you arrive at a place and go and inform that you are in the city, then there is nothing terrible in this,” she says. Ganushlina cautions against the privilege status that the propiska now holds — available to a select few and off limits to the rest.

“In general it is one of our worst violations of human rights,” she says. The odious fallout of all of this, according to Ganushlina, is that “the police are becoming criminalized.”

Heavy-handed enforcement
Moscow’s police force has been castigated for its rampant corruption and has been accused of using skin color as the primary basis for enforcing the law, especially registration.

Violent mafia groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus operating in Moscow have fostered stereotypes that all people from those areas are mafia thugs. Accordingly, the fact that most migrants and refugees are from these regions creates an inherent suspicion of dark-skinned people in Moscow. Chechens like Nazhamud, along with Dagestanis, Ingush, Ossetians, Tajiks and Georgians who live in Moscow without registration are easy targets for the police, who insist they are simply controlling crime.

Rosiko, from Tajikistan, has been stopped more than 20 times in the last month.
Rosiko, recently arrived from Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan that has just emerged from years of civil war, says he has been stopped more than 20 times in the past month.

“Every time it’s 10 or 15 rubles,” he says of the police shakedowns — about $1.50 to $2. Although that is not astronomical, it is often all Rosiko has. So shakedowns have become part of his daily life. Rosiko left Tajikistan for Moscow to earn more money for his family and he has grown used to the harassment. Yet a nagging fear is always with him: “When you don’t have a residency permit, everyone is afraid.”

‘Open season, closed city'
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, in a 1997 report on Moscow urban migration entitled “Open Season, Closed City” documents pervasive police extortion of non-registered migrants and refugees. By law, a non-registered person is usually just fined, but the specter of deportation always looms.

Diedereck Lohman, Moscow director of Human Rights Watch argues deportation is the last thing police want.

“The police are not interested in deporting these people.” Propiska checks, Lohman explains, are easy money. “It’s a very good system for the police,” because officers know that migrants and refugees probably do not have a propiska, making them ready sources of income.

Valdimir Vershkov, head of the Moscow Interior Ministry press department, refused to comment on residency permit laws, citing past “gross misrepresentations” in the media. Vershkov did deny, however, that Moscow singles out dark-skinned people. He asserted that police stop as many people from Ukraine and Belarus as from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Same treatment
Even Russians who are not from Moscow fear police intimidation and fines when they come to live and work in the city.

Natasha, a 36-year-old ethnic Russian widow from Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, a virtual nuclear wasteland where Soviet weapons were tested, arrived in the capital after her husband died in a helicopter crash.

Fearing Kazakh nationalism, Natasha came to Moscow to restart her family’s life. Like other migrants, Natasha does not have a residency permit.

“I have to live here in order to earn money to support my children, I simply have to,” she says softly. Natasha says she also fears the police.

“They have stopped and fined me five times, and they wouldn’t give me any receipts,” she says bitterly. Natasha pleads with police when they stop her, but “that helps very little.”

Despite the efforts of groups like Civic Assistance and Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, there is little chance Moscow will abolish its registration system outright. Muscovites covet their relative wealth and good life and fear migrants will only take away from that. Mayor Luzhkov, a leading candidate for the 2000 presidential elections, has stated repeatedly that he will protect the capital first, even if that means contradicting federal law.

For many the harassment and hostility of Moscow is too much, but for others like Nazhamud, there is no backing down. ” I am not afraid of anyone, I’m not afraid,” Nazhamud says defiantly. ” I am a citizen of Russia. I am a Chechen, but I am a citizen of Russia.”

Chris Riley is NBC News’ Moscow assignment editor.

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