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Europe

Russia braces for ethnic strife follwing Moscow riots

The riots in Moscow following the stabbing of an ethnic Russian point to a much larger problem. Ethnic tensions in Russia are rife with growing right-wing resentment against central Asian immigrants.

Last week, Yegor Shcherbakov, 25, was walking home with his girlfriend in the Biryulyovo district outside of Moscow when he was stabbed by an unknown assailant after a brief altercation. He died soon afterwards.

Police surveillance footage released after the killing showed a potential suspect of 'non-Slavic appearance.' Shcherbakov was ethnically Russian. State media quickly jumped on the story.

By the weekend, local ethnic Russians had organized through online social media. Citizen patrols went house-to-house interrogating suspects. The situation quickly spiraled out of control as several thousand people rampaged in Biryulyovo under slogans of "Russia forward" and "Russia for Russians!" Rioters smashed store windows, overturned cars, and attacked migrant workers in Biryulyovo's local vegetable market.

Police conducts mass detention (photo: Grigoriy Sisoev/RIA Novosti)

Police arrested scores of immigrants after the killing

Police, too, faced the wrath of the mob. Several officers and members of Russia's OMON special forces were injured. Before it was all over, 380 rioters had been detained.

Speaking to the press following the melee, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin promised quick action by the authorities to find the killer. In addition, he vowed to restore order on the streets - and in the markets. Within hours, some 1,200 migrant workers had been detained. The suspect, an Azerbaijani national, was arrested and the Biryulyovo vegetable market closed indefinitely. The vast majority of rioters - for now - have been released, though some may face charges.

Socialist melting pot unravels

In the Soviet Union, authorities endlessly toyed with what was then called "the nationalist question" - policies aimed at forging a common socialist identity among the USSR's vast multi-ethnic populations. Buried under Soviet propaganda for 80 years, those tensions are erupting once again in the new Russia as millions from poorer neighboring countries and Russia's southern Caucasus regions come to Moscow and other cities in search of jobs.

According to Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center, an organization that tracks xenophobia and hate crimes in Russia, the recent tensions stem primarily from a fraying of common cultural ties. Verkhovsky tells DW that a generation after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the "cultural distance" between Russia and its neighbors has become more prominent.

Demonstrators scuffle with police (photo: VASILY MAXIMOV)

Right-wing riots escalated in fights with the police

"Now people coming from Central Asia and other areas, they don't know the Russian language. They come from a different country. [Whereas] 15 years ago, people came from basically another part of the Soviet Union. They had maybe not the same background but a more similar one."

Verkhovsky argues smart policies aimed at assimilation could do much to alleviate tensions. Thus far, the government appears not to be listening.

Mohammad Amin Majumder, head of the Russia's Federation of Migrants, calls the government's policies on the issue "non-existent." In an interview with DW, Majumder says this is done intentionally despite willingness of the vast majority of migrants to work in legitimate businesses willing to pay tax.

"The majority of migrants have to work illegally because work permits given out are 30 times less than what is needed. This low barrier is created artificially by bureaucrats," Majumder says, noting this conveniently opens the door to lucrative bribes to local officials.

Only the majority of these local authorities, observers note, are not elected under the vertical system of political control introduced under Russian President Vladimir Putin over a decade ago.

Feodor Krasheninnikov, a political analyst based in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg, tells DW that this means appointed officials have little incentive to listen to the citizens they serve. Local problems - such as migration - aren't discussed at all. Krasheninnikov says the result is a growing rift between President Putin and his support base among working class Russians.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (photo: Alexei Nikolskyi)

Putin dreams of a new greater Russia, critics say

"Putin dreams about restoring Russia's empire and expanding Russia's borders - primarily at the expense of Central Asia. Well, maybe working class Russians are in theory for restoring the Soviet Union, but they're also categorically against people from these countries living in their backyards. They don't like that. And Putin has no answer to that."

Populist politics take hold

As a result, communities are taking the law into their own hands. Migrants fear - and nationalists relish - the possibility of 'the next Biryulyovo.' Troublesome signs are already in the offing.

The "Russian March," an annual gathering for nationalists, will take place in cities across the country on November 4. Moscow authorities have approved the march over the protests of migrant interest groups.

Mohammad Amin Majumder from the Federation of Migrants says one possible outlet for ethnic tension may lie in sports - pointing to this week's football match between former Soviet neighbors Russia and Azerbaijan.

Majumder, who immigrated to Russia from Bangladesh over 20 years ago, says that as a citizen of Russia, he'll root for his home team as always. "But for all migrants' sake, this time I really hope Russia wins."

As it happens, clear winners in football are as hard to come by as victors among Russia's current ethnic strife. The match with Azerbaijan ended in a draw.

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