EARLIER THIS month, the longstanding racism of the Russian far Right toward the country’s ethnic minorities took a turn for the worse. A dispute over a taxi in Moscow turned into a brawl between Russian youths and migrants from the North Caucasus, resulting in the fatal shooting of twenty-eight-year old Yegor Sviridov. The suspect, a twenty-six-year-old immigrant from Dagestan with a criminal record, has been arrested and arraigned. But his apprehension was not enough to prevent the outbreak of violence in Moscow and other parts of the country.
The public memorial held in honor of Sviridov, who was a fan of the popular soccer club Spartak and a member of an organized hooligan group (the two identities very often go hand in hand in today’s Russia), turned into an opportunity for thousands of ultranationalists to gather in the Red Square. Accounts of just how many people there were vary, but usually fall somewhere between two and five thousand. Similar clashes, although on a smaller scale, took place in St. Petersburg. The almost entirely young crowd chanted “Russia for Russians” and “One for all and all for one.” In one Moscow neighborhood, the rioters clashed with police forces that, although dressed in riot gear, were seemingly overwhelmed by the sheer size and aggressiveness of the protesters, who set off fireworks and threw chunks of ice, bottles, and metal guardrails. Amateur videos shot of the event also show the hooligans chasing down young men of a darker complexion, their faces bloodied and bruised. After being dispersed from the street, the mob descended into the Moscow metro system, pulling foreign-looking people from train cars and beating them on the platform. At least forty people were beaten in the December 11 riots. Several more attacks happened in the following days, including the murder of an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan.
Neo-Nazi groups have had a hand in organizing and mobilizing the wave of protests, no doubt seeing in them an opportunity to gain a significant amount of media coverage. Russia’s skinhead and ultranationalist movement—the largest in Europe, numbering anywhere between twenty and seventy thousand—is the product of the crumbling fabric of Russian society. The rapid economic downturn in the face of the 2008 recession has dramatically affected an already troubled Russian youth, who, lacking bright prospects, too often succumb to crime, alcoholism, and far-right politics. The tumultuous recent history of Russian involvement in the Caucasus has also spread hostility among ethnic Russians toward natives of the region. After their exposure to the brutal violence that took place in the two wars against Chechnya, many young Russians drafted into compulsory military service returned home, often taking up jobs in law enforcement. Their halfhearted reaction to the riots has betrayed a sympathy to the anti-immigrant sentiments among the youth and a reluctance to protect people similar to the wartime enemy they faced. Continuing terrorist attacks by Chechen militants on Russia’s civilian population have also taken their psychological toll on the people, helping further paint the picture of the non-ethnic Russian as the alien Other.
According to some statistics, the number of migrant workers from the Caucasus residing in Russia has increased nearly twenty-fold since the mid-1990s. Organized crime from the region has made inroads into Russia’s biggest cities, enabled partially by the Kremlin’s close relationship with the lawless regime of Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov. This demographic shift has made clashes between the far-right groups and immigrants more frequent. The SOVA Center, which tracks Russia’s radical Right, noted in summer 2010 that the movement’s activities had decreased since the previous year, attributing the decline to a more concerted effort on the part of the state’s legal system to prosecute crimes. Yet the events of this December now cast that judgment into doubt, as they reaffirm the suspicion that the ultranationalist movement in the country is as strong and capable of mobilization as ever. Quite simply, the December 11 riots caught the government off-guard and unprepared.
The initial response from government officials to the rioting revealed as much. In a surreal moment that took place not long after the news of the riots began spreading through the media, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev blamed the violence on a “provocation from left-wing radicals.” In reality, youth anti-fascist organizations have for years been at the forefront of fighting against the ultranationalist Right—all while being subjected to a greater amount of political persecution from above. On the ground, the police were tentative and uncertain of how to handle the situation. Perhaps sensing his own weakness, Moscow’s police chief negotiated with the riot’s leaders. No attempt was made to disperse the protests until the scene turned violent, and only sixty-five arrests were made, with all the suspects released the following day.
Given time to assess the situation, however, the government’s condemnation of the violence has been strong and blunt. Making little reference to the need for protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and challenging the ultranationalists on the grounds of state security, President Dmitry Medvedev spoke out strongly against the riots, stating that “crimes aimed at inciting racial, ethnic, or religious hatred are particularly dangerous as they threaten the stability of the state.” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was even more direct, comparing racism and nationalism to viruses and saying that “Russia must suppress all manifestations of extremism on all sides, wherever they may come from.” He downplayed the ethnic pluralism of the Russian state, putting forth a picture of the country as a unified nation where citizenship trumped ethnic identity. “Russia was founded as a multi-ethnic and multiconfessional country,” Putin said during a television appearance, while underlining the importance of not making blanket judgments about people based on their ethnic background. However, these remarks came with pointed caveats, namely that Russian Orthodoxy was still “our” religion, and that minorities should respect and act in accordance with the dominant customs of the region they are in.
A second public confrontation was scheduled for December 15, under the auspices of a challenge from the representatives of the immigrant communities to meet for a brawl. In fact, the challenge was a forgery, circulated on the internet, but it had its intended effect: a crowd of over 1,000 gathered for the fight. As armed gangs from both sides sparred in a small number of street battles, they were met with a much heavier security presence. As a result, it did not devolve into a melee of nearly the same magnitude as the one on December 11, and over 1,300 people were detained throughout the day. A massive security sweep in ten cities has raised that number to over 2,000 arrests, along with the seizure of many weapons, including knives, stun guns, and bats.
Some figures among the domestic opposition have accused the Kremlin of playing a role in this second round of clashes, staging them in an attempt to recover the loss of face experienced days before. Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst with the National Strategy Institute, has claimed that any number of “extras,” hired for a few hundred rubles each, could have been brought in to stir up trouble and be willingly arrested in front of the media, only to be quietly released afterward. Not all the Kremlin’s critics were willing to endorse this view entirely: for example, Vladimir Pribylovsky—a political analyst and anti-Putin activist, has simply pointed out that members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were present at both events. More troubling however, are the unconfirmed whispers circulating inside the country of the state’s own connection to the ultranationalist Right. No indisputable evidence exists, but the prominence and longevity of the movement suggests it has patrons in high places in the Russian state, particularly among the Federal Protective Service (FSB) and the Interior Ministry. In the years under Putin, the government has come to something of an implicit agreement with the ultranationalist gangs, who were largely allowed to organize and practice violence so long as they stayed out of the country’s politics. Just last August, a major in the FSB was brought up on charges of leading an ultranationalist gang responsible for arson and bombings in the Orel region of southwestern Russia.
Both the Kremlin and the liberal opposition have used the rioting as an opportunity to exchange verbal barbs in the media. Critics have pointed to the recent sweeps as a harbinger of further authoritarian measures, claiming that the government response has been disproportionate and a sign of the “breakdown of state institutions,” in the words of Andrei Kolesnikov, an editor with the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Never one to mince words, Putin challenged the response of Russian liberals to the government crackdown, calling the intelligentsia naïve for criticizing the government when its purpose is to preserve order. To paraphrase Putin, if the government’s response was anything less than what they had criticized, the liberals themselves would need to shave off their goatees, put on helmets, and go out on the streets to contain the rioting. Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin insider who has had a significant hand in consolidating ruling party United Russia’s political control, echoed Putin’s comments, going so far as to claim that “it’s actually our ‘liberal’ public that is constantly trying to make unapproved rallies trendy, and nationalists and rednecks just imitate them.” In light of these remarks, Putin’s outburst against racism and nationalism cannot be viewed without a hint of cynicism. Putin did nothing to ease the tensions by personally going to lay a wreath at Sviridov’s grave—a gesture taken by many ultranationalists as an unspoken confirmation of their own moral righteousness—and giving a stern warning that he would drastically limit future immigration into Russia from the southern republics should the clashes continue.
The rhetoric and behavior emanating from the official channels of the Kremlin has played a role in creating the toxic atmosphere that hangs over Russia today. The Russian state is reaping the ugly products of the nationalism it has been sowing for the better part of a decade—public sentiment that it counted on containing and harnessing toward its own domestic policies. But the relationship between state channels and the far Right has always been precarious, driven by political exigency and a perceived dovetailing of interests. Whether this relationship will continue in the same manner remains to be seen, although there are signs it is becoming strained. This year, SOVA has reported instances of ultranationalists claiming responsibilities for anti-state crimes, targeting public officials in various regions. Likewise, compared with the license of recent years, state authorities have been more busily legislating and enforcing laws targeting neo-Nazi incitements to violence. To complicate matters further, there are likely to be differences within the Kremlin leadership on how to handle the far Right, and how to avoid ceding the political terrain of nationalism while at the same time maintaining a close relationship with Kadyrov and stability in the North Caucasus.
This need to strike a middle path between condemning and acknowledging the presence of the far Right reveals the bind that the Russian state is caught in at the moment. Police and public officials are neither trusted by immigrants nor by the ultranationalists, each side suspecting their collusion with the other. The violence on the streets reflects an increasing popular disaffection with the corruption of the Russian political system. The authorities’ decision to release four of the five suspects in Sviridov’s murder only hours after their detainment has been seen as a major catalyst for the December 11 riots, with many of Sviridov’s associates speculating that informal ties between the police and organized crime from the North Caucasus led to the release. Facing an increasingly disaffected population and lacking sufficient ideological resources to mobilize support, the current government is drifting dangerously close to a legitimation crisis. With the presidential elections of 2012 already a subject of discussion—many wonder whether Putin will again seek his old presidential post—the rounding up of ultranationalists may indeed be a way of both silencing political opposition and regaining popular support through the restoration of public order. How the current authorities navigate around this issue is sure to play a role in whether United Russia will maintain its place of power.
Rafael Khachaturian is a graduate student in political science at Indiana University. He previously earned an M.A. in political theory from the New School, and in the past has interned at Dissent. His blog can be found at pathstoutopia.wordpress.com.