Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Russia Roiled By Ethnic Riots

Though under-reported in the West, during the past few weeks, Russia has been dealing with some of the worst ethnic rioting seen in the country since the end of the Soviet Union. The catalyst for this situation was the murder on December 5 of Yegor Sviridov, an ethnic Russian soccer fan by another group of Russians from the Northern Caucasus region outside of a match by the club Spartak Moscow, and the subsequent release of the perpetrators by the local police. This sparked a protest by thousands of ethnic Russians outside the gates of the Kremlin on December 11. Egged on by members of nationalist and ultra-right wing groups within their numbers, the protest soon turned into a full-blown riot the elite OMON unit of the national militia struggled to contain.

While most Americans think of Russia as a nation filled exclusively with, well, Russians, it actually is a diverse, multiethnic society made up of dozens of ethnic groups. A vast, multiethnic society living together in peace was one of the big propaganda points touted by the old Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent nations in 1991, old ethnic tensions began to bubble to the surface. In Russia today, both Russian citizens originally from the old Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, as well as migrant workers from those now-independent countries today, often find themselves the target of racist attacks – Central Asian workers tend to fill the same role in Russia that migrant Mexican workers do in the United States. Russians from the North Caucasus region in southwestern Russia also face widespread discrimination. The North Caucasus region is home to Chechnya, so the common assumption in Russia is that all North Caucasus residents are terrorists (or potential terrorists) and they tend to be treated accordingly.

Unfortunately in the 16 years since the beginning of the first Chechen War, unrest from Chechnya has spread across the North Caucasus to other Russian republics like Dagestan and Ingushetia, and the conflict has evolved from a struggle by Chechen militants for independence for their homeland into one that has become increasingly wrapped up in an al-Qaeda-style battle to create a fundamentalist Islamic state – all factors that feed the “all North Caucasus people are terrorists” meme within Russia. One reason this Islamic fundamentalism has found fertile ground in the region is the generally lousy living conditions found in the North Caucasus – unemployment is ridiculously high as is the poverty rate, while local officials are horribly corrupt – all problems acknowledged by President Dmitry Medvedev. Unfortunately the Russian government's response hasn't been to encourage development and crackdown on corruption in the region, but rather to give a free hand to brutal local leaders like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in dealing with dissent, a strategy that has succeeded only in creating more (and angrier) dissent.

Corruption also directly led to the recent riots in Moscow; the perpetrators of the fatal attack on Sviridov were released from custody after a bribe was apparently paid to the police. But again, this reality failed to bring about the expected response from Russian officials – namely an investigation into rampant police corruption, but instead brought just more political window dressing: namely a visit by Prime Minister Putin to the grave site of the murdered soccer fan, Sviridov. That and the assignment of Russia's newest superstar to the case – Anna Chapman, who was recently named to the advisory board of the “Young Guard”, a pro-Kremlin youth group, to whom she gave the kind of vague and bland speech you expect from politicians today, case in point: “we must transform the future, starting with ourselves!”

For his part, during a nationally televised address, Putin seemed willing to attack the problem of unauthorized protests within Russia, but his focus quickly shifted from ethnic strife and soccer hooligans to liberal political protests. Perhaps to emphasize the point, on December 31, one of Russia's best-known left-wing politicians, Boris Nemtsov was arrested during one of the “31” protests in Moscow – for the past year, liberal groups have publicly gathered on the 31st day or every month that has one in support of the 31st article of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the people the right to peacefully assemble. Previously, the small gatherings were quickly broken up by the police, though the October 31 rally was allowed to go on with an official approval from President Medvedev. That wasn't the case for the December 31 protest, which was not only broken up, but saw Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister not only arrested but also sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Just as Russia chose to react to the allegations of police corruption brought forward by Novorossiisk policeman Alexei Dymovsky by creating “Dymovsky 's law” - a law that didn't punish corrupt officers, but rather those who blew the whistle on them, Russia once again seems intent on applying the wrong remedy to a problem – treating ethnic strife by arresting political critics of the Kremlin.
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