Riots in Russia rooted in nationalism, hatred of immigrants

Riot police officers detain protesters during a rally Sunday on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Thousands have attended other rallies in Moscow, with opposition activists calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and nationalists demanding greater rights for ethnic Russians.
Riot police officers detain protesters during a rally Sunday on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Thousands have attended other rallies in Moscow, with opposition activists calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and nationalists demanding greater rights for ethnic Russians. (Sergey Ponomarev)
By Will Englund
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MOSCOW - Street melees here over the past few days, sparked by the killing of a soccer fan and fueled by nationalists' hatred of immigrants from the Caucasus, have caught the police and other authorities unprepared for an upsurge of rage that appears to reflect a larger sense of anger in Russian society.

The riots by right-wing nationalists and extremists have put political leaders on the spot: How should they go about cracking down on a movement that until now typically has been a useful right flank for those in power?

The Kremlin has spent the past decade nurturing nationalist sentiment in Russia, especially among the young. Now, hundreds and sometimes thousands of furious young men have been gathering around Moscow and other cities, shouting nationalist slogans, making fascist salutes and beating up darker-skinned people who appear to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia.

A man from Central Asia was stabbed to death in the southern part of Moscow by a group of about 15 young people Sunday night or Monday morning, police reported.

On Saturday, several thousand young men clashed with police at Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin. Eighty were detained briefly, but riot police chased most of the crowd into the subway, where they rampaged through the cars threatening non-Russians. Three natives of the Caucasus were stabbed and had to be hospitalized, police said. On Sunday, crowds appeared at Pushkin Square and at Sokolniki Park. Web sites promised more to come.

Critics across the political spectrum called the government's response inadequate or counterproductive.

"Very strong political statements should have been made" against the rioters, Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of a human rights group called Sova, said Monday. "If the state is still silent, then the participants look at this as silent permission for more."

But right-wing leaders denounced the government for cracking down on them.

On the Web site of the National-Sovereign Party of Russia, Alexander Sevastyanov argued that "the head-on, tough, forceful attack on nationalism (which is falsely interpreted by the authorities as extremism) did not achieve anything other than an escalation of violence and social tension. Sow the wind - reap the whirlwind!"

On Sunday, Russia's interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, sought to blame the riots on left-wing radicals, but the chants and slogans point to the right. At the same time, they speak to a broader sense of anger in Russian society that turns up regularly in polls and private conversations but rarely finds a way to express itself.

The government clearly is worried about extremism, but police tend to pick on graffiti writers rather than organizers, Kozhevnikova said.

On Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev appeared on the Rossiya television channel to address the riots. "The recent events in Moscow, pogroms and attacks on people should be classified as crimes, and their perpetrators should be punished," he said.

But his government seems to be walking a fine line. On Saturday, Medvedev's deputy chief of staff told a meeting of Kremlin-sponsored youth groups, "Prepare yourselves for the polls, and train your brains and your muscles. You can always count on our support."

The most recent riots began after a fan of the Spartak soccer team, Yegor Svidorov, died after being shot with rubber bullets a week ago during a fight that involved at least 10 people, police said. Four suspects, at least three of whom are from the Caucasus, were arrested.

Spartak fans blocked Leningradsky Highway last week to mourn his death, but since then they have been overtaken by rightist political groups. "

Late Monday afternoon, riot police in helmets and body armor blocked off Manezh Square. The square remained calm Monday night, the news agency Interfax reported.


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