MOSCOW – Moscow police have asked schools to provide lists of children with Georgian surnames, education officials said Monday in a chilling reminder of Russian xenophobia amid Moscow's escalating campaign against neighboring Georgia.
Police denied making the request, but an Education Department spokesman and a north Moscow school official said such instructions were received.
Russia deported 132 Georgian citizens on a plane from Moscow after detaining them as illegal migrants, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said Friday. His ministry, which is flying Russians out of Georgia, was charged with organizing the deportation flight.
Relations between the two ex-Soviet nations have grown progressively worse since pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in Georgia in 2003 and vowed to move his country out of Russia's sphere of influence and join NATO and the EU.
The situation worsened sharply last week with the Georgian arrest of four Russian officers on spying charges. Although Georgia released them, Moscow imposed punitive sanctions on its small southern neighbor and cracked down on Georgian migrants and businesses in Russia.
Alexander Gavrilov, a spokesman for the Moscow City hall's education department, told The Associated Press that some, but not all, Moscow schools had received the request for children with Georgian names. He criticized the police action, saying that all children, irrespective of nationality or religion, had an equal right to education.
"If the law enforcement bodies carry out work searching for illegal migrants, it's their business and there is no way schools must be involved in this process," the official said.
Nina Zubareva, an official from school 1289 in northern Moscow, told the AP that on Thursday the local police station telephoned demanding a list of pupils with Georgian surnames.
"There are very few pupils with Georgian surnames in our school and we have honored the police request. I must say that our pupils are Russian citizens and have Moscow registration. Their families have been living in Moscow for years," she said.
Moscow police denied it had told schools to list their schoolchildren of Georgian origin.
"We did not issue any such instructions, nor do we plan to," police spokesman Valery Gribakin told Ekho Mosvky radio, despite the educators' accounts.
The Kommersant newspaper quoted what it called a high-ranking police official as confirming the measures.
"The initiative comes from the Interior Ministry," the official was quoted as saying anonymously. He added that checking for illegal migrants "is easiest to do through children, who study at school irrespective of whether their parents are registered in Moscow or pay taxes."
Russia suspended air, sea, road, rail and postal links with its southern neighbor on Tuesday. On Thursday, Moscow said it would abolish quotas allowing a certain number of Georgians each year to obtain residency and work permits. Several Georgian-run casinos and restaurants in Moscow have been raided and closed down for alleged regulatory violations.
According to some estimates, around a million Georgians — more than a fifth of Georgia's population — work in Russia, and their families rely on the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual remittances sent home. Russian authorities say that more than half of Georgians in Russia are working illegally.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko on Thursday said that Tbilisi had to end its "anti-Russian" behavior if it wanted the dispute to calm down.
"Russia does not want to be provoked, Russia wants to be respected. Russia wants the anti-Russian campaign to stop," he said.