After Fatal Brawl, Russia’s Ethnic Tensions Hard to Cool

Kremlin and St. Basil's

(RIA Novosti – MOSCOW, July 10, 2013) ­ Russian officials and community leaders tried Wednesday to cool interethnic tensions by calling for a liquor ban, evacuating “radical” youngsters and promising justice, after a stabbing death in a small town triggered days of angry protests demanding that residents from Russia’s war-scarred republic of Chechnya be kicked out.

President Vladimir Putin’s regional representative met with local officials and townspeople in Pugachyov, a town of some 40,000 near the Volga River, saying no ethnic group would be expelled en masse, but that migration officials are checking residents’ paperwork. The envoy, Mikhail Babich, assured journalists that investigators are hard at work, probing both the fatal brawl and the rallies and threats that followed.

Tensions have been roiling since Sunday, when a 20-year-old former paratrooper died of stab wounds inflicted by a 16-year-old in a fight over a girl, as prosecutors have described the incident. The suspect, an ethnic Chechen, was detained Sunday and confessed to the killing, prosecutors said; some press reports have identified the ethnicity of the blond-haired victim, Ruslan Marzhanov, as half Russian, half Tatar.

In the days since Marzhanov’s death, hundreds of locals have marched through town calling for the deportation of people from Chechnya and the mostly Muslim North Caucasus region where it is located.

Police said this week that they had prevented a vigilante attack on the town’s small Chechen community and an arson attempt at the Halal café, reportedly frequented by patrons from the North Caucasus. Regional officials, meanwhile, called on protesters to refrain from “mob justice.”

To minimize tensions, Pugachyov’s Chechens, estimated at about 100 people, evacuated an unspecified number of youngsters believed to be “hard to control” or “radical,” Babich, the Putin envoy, told RIA Novosti on Wednesday.

That afternoon, locals briefly blocked a railroad, after twice blocking a major highway earlier this week, according to media and police reports.

An ‘Everyday’ Crime

Both officials and Marzhanov’s father pointed out Wednesday that the crime leading to this week’s tensions had nothing to do with ethnicity.

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Kremlin’s human rights council, said the murder was “an everyday crime,” using a Russian term that often refers to domestic violence and interpersonal conflicts.

“This was not a murder motivated by interethnic hate,” he said. “This is really, unfortunately, an everyday crime.”

“What mattered was not ethnicity but vodka, and the transformation of Russia into [a nation of] alcoholics,” Russian media quoted the dead man’s father as saying. “If we didn’t have drinking establishments, nothing would have happened.”

While it is not clear what role liquor played in the deadly brawl, which took place late Saturday outside a café, local authorities did issue a recommendation this week asking vendors to suspend alcohol sales in town until July 19. Earlier reports had said some of the protesters had been drunk, and a regional trade official, Olga Putina, told RIA Novosti that the suggested ban was linked directly to the protests, so as “not to provoke” more trouble.

Focus on Migrants

Thus far, much of the local crowds’ wrath, as well as official scrutiny, has focused on migration and residency status, while little has been said about addressing underlying causes of tension, such as socioeconomic problems or drastic culture clashes.

By Wednesday evening, federal migration officials in Pugachyov had discovered 18 residents from Chechnya in violation of migration rules, including five people without residency registration and 13 registered at fictitious addresses, Babich told RIA Novosti. Local residents, meanwhile, called on the governor of the Saratov Region, where the town is located, to reinstate Soviet-era residency permits, or propiska, BBC’s Russian service reported. It was not immediately clear whether the murder suspect’s residency documents were in order.

While most of the migration within Russia ­ and to Russia from former Soviet republics ­ is economically motivated, tens of thousands of people have fled Chechnya due to two bloody wars between federal troops and separatist forces fought there since 1994. Although Chechnya has largely been pacified under its strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed former separatist, outmigration from other parts of the North Caucasus has been hastened in recent years both by economic factors and by simmering violence among powerful local clans, including some radical Islamist groups.

Not an Isolated Case

The anger that spilled out this week in Pugachyov, against an ethnic minority after one person is accused of wrongdoing, is not an isolated case.

Last month, hundreds of residents ­ most of them seeming to self-identify as ethnic Slavs ­ marched in a “Day of Rage” protest through the provincial town of Udomlya, 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of Moscow, after a brawl between groups of young people, some of whom were reportedly from the North Caucasus.

In a number of cases in recent years, including large-scale, violent clashes in central Moscow in late 2010, protesters have been outraged by what they see as tight-knit ethnic communities’ collective ability to bribe corrupt police officials to reduce or avoid punishment for suspected crimes.

The Nationalist Threat

While Russia’s leadership has focused attention in recent years on the problems of nationalism and illegal migration, it has been hard-pressed to tackle interethnic tensions head on.

In his state-of-the-nation address in December, Putin described nationalism as a danger to Russia’s multi-ethnic social fabric. At the same time, he ordered regional authorities to prevent the emergence of “closed ethnic enclaves with their own informal jurisdiction” ­ a phenomenon seen as an irritant by many nationalists ­ and identified “ethnic gangs” as a major threat to national security.

Some of the negative stereotypes commonly heard in Russia about natives of the Caucasus region, and to some extent about the millions of labor migrants from former Soviet Central Asia, include accusations that they are hot-tempered, disproportionately involved in crime and “disrespectful of Russian traditions.”

In the case of the North Caucasus, other thorny issues often raised in public discourse include the giant federal subsidies received (and, possibly, misappropriated) by the region and the high birth rates compared to Russia as a whole, which has been fighting for years to stop a severe population decline.

Community leaders and rights advocates, on the contrary, say that ethnic minorities are often subjected to racial profiling, discrimination and victimization, particularly by unscrupulous employers and officials, including police.

The events in Pugachyov have been something of a rallying cry for nationalists, with one small radical group calling on its supporters to go to the town to “clean our land of filth.”

The group, the Russian Party, which calls for migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia to be expelled from the Russian heartland, declared earlier this week that it would send “hundreds” of members to Pugachyov on Thursday.

A day earlier, however, police took the group’s leader, Nikolai Bondarik, off a train bound for the Saratov Region, according to statements both by police and by Bondarik, on his page in the social network VKontakte.

Thus far, local officials and community leaders in Pugachyov have managed to keep the simmering tensions from boiling over into large-scale violence. But this hardly means that a long-term solution to the problem of interethnic strife has been found.

The authorities do not have “some policy to exacerbate or, on the contrary, to prevent interethnic conflict by some specific means,” Vera Alperovich, a researcher on nationalism and xenophobia at Sova, a nongovernmental watchdog, said in an interview with RFI radio. “Our authorities respond to a given, specific situation.”