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Putin targets migrants as Moscow mayoral race heats up

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened Moscow’s first detention camp for illegal immigrants as migrants become the main concern among voters preparing for the city’s first mayoral election since 2003.

The tarpaulin tents for 600 people, surrounded by a 26-foot fence, signal the campaign for the Sept. 8 vote is heating up as Putin seeks to show he is in control of Europe’s largest city, the center of Russia’s opposition. His protege, acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, is pulling out all the stops to beat challengers, including protest leader Alexei Navalny.

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As the Russian economy grows at the slowest pace since a 2009 recession, Moscow has become the main battlefield between Putin, who last year returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president, and his opponents. Tens of thousands turned out for antigovernment rallies, the biggest against the Russian leader’s 13-year rule, with Navalny among the organizers.

‘‘The Kremlin needs a rematch here in order to strengthen its power,’’ said Valery Fedorov, head of the state-run VTsIOM research center in Moscow. ‘‘Muscovites see migrants as a threat. Politicians make use of that.’’

While the city upgraded Moscow’s highways, rebuilt parks, and introduced a rent-a-bike network, the focus has shifted to migrants as the campaign enters its stretch run.

Officers have detained at least 5,750 migrant workers from the Caucasus, central Asia, and nations including Vietnam since the end of July in what Sobyanin says is a drive to clean up markets and rid the city of criminal gangs. More than 2,000 migrants have been rounded up in the rest of the country, according to the Interior Ministry. The government is drafting a plan to create a network of 83 detention centers across Russia.

While the migrant camp may help Sobyanin get votes, some experts say it leaves the main problem unsolved.

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