MOSCOW: The campaign for Moscow's mayoral elections is being stained by a "visceral hatred" of migrants in Russia that risks sparking civil conflict, five of the country's most celebrated rights activists said Wednesday.
In a rare note of unanimity, both pro-Kremlin and opposition candidates running for Moscow mayor in the September 8 elections have all made toughening immigration policies a key plank of their campaigns.
"Our society is being drawn into such depths of visceral hatred that the only way out of it is civil war," said the leaders of five of Russia's top rights groups.
"The current flare-up in the 'fight' against illegal immigration is simply a PR campaign ahead of upcoming elections," they said in an open letter published in Russia's top opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
"Having put their differences aside, the participants in the pre-election race are unanimously demanding the introduction of visas for the countries of the Commonwealth of the Independent States," they said, referring to post-Soviet countries.
The signatories were campaigners who are household names in Russia: Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Arseny Roginsky of Memorial, former Soviet dissident Sergei Kovalyov, Svetlana Gannushkina, chairperson of the Civic Assistance Committee and Lidiya Grafova of the Forum of Migration Organisations.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have come to Russia from impoverished, Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union such as Tajikistan, often working as street cleaners or on construction sites.
They frequently endure poor labour and living conditions and are increasingly regarded with disdain by many Muscovites.
Russian police routinely raid underground operations in which migrants from southeast or central Asia are exploited by employers, but police themselves are notorious for extorting bribes from such migrants.
Ahead of Moscow's mayoral elections, police have increased their raids and last month arrested 1,200 mainly Vietnamese people living in squalid conditions in sweatshops.
The capital's pro- Kremlin mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is seeking re-election but all the candidates have tried to play on voters' concerns about migration.
Anti- Kremlin candidates such as protest leader Alexei Navalny and liberal opposition figure Sergei Mitrokhin have also embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric. Mitrokhin has accused the Moscow city administration of hiring migrant workers and essentially becoming the "top slave owner".
The rights activists called on Russia's elites to speak out against the growing xenophobia.
"Why are you keeping silent?" they said. "Cannot you, dear scientists and cultural figures, see how the skies over our homeland are getting enveloped by the caustic brown stench?" they added, referring to the traditional colour of fascism.
Many Muscovites say the Russian capital is already bursting at the seams from the huge influx of foreign labourers and chafe at the increased numbers of Muslim migrants and some of their traditions, such as slaughtering sheep in public.
According to the latest census, conducted in 2010, Moscow's population is just under 12 million, but experts say the real numbers are higher.
As many as one million migrants could be working in Moscow without legal permits, according to Gannushkina.
Many experts however note that Russia, which is struggling to contain a demographic crisis, is heavily dependent on foreign labourers who do menial jobs shunned by Russians.
The open letter estimated the migrants' contribution to the Russian economy at seven percent of gross domestic product.
President Vladimir Putin proposed tough new immigration rules ahead of his return for a third Kremlin term last year but spoke out against inflaming ethic tensions.
Many analyst have accused Putin of openly flirting with xenophobia and seeking to hijack the nationalist slogans of activists who have joined the protest movement against the strongman's 13-year rule.
The rights campaigners also assailed the dismal conditions in which many migrants worked and lived.
"In front of the whole world our country is turning into a slave-owning state," they said in the letter.