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Divided Moscow

December 21, 2010

After a Russian soccer fan was murdered by Caucasians from southern Russia, a fresh wave of ethnic violence has divided Moscow. But racial tension in the Russian capital is not a new phenomenon.

A photo of Yegor Sviridov
Sviridov's death has triggered a wave of violenceImage: AP

The latest escalation of violence between Russian ultra-nationalists and Caucasians was triggered on December 4, when a Spartak Moscow soccer fan was shot in the head during a fight with Caucasians from mainly Muslim southern Russia.

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the killing, but four were later released, adding fuel to the fire of ethnic clashes in Moscow. For two weeks now, attacks against minorities have been a regular occurrence.

Over the weekend, around 1,300 people who had gathered to stage demonstrations in Moscow were arrested in an effort to prevent further violence. Many of those arrested were of high school age.

Not a new problem

While the murder of soccer fan Yegor Sviridov may have sparked the latest fights in and around Moscow, ethnic tension in Russia is nothing new.

A man is led away by police
Hundreds of arrests were made over the weekendImage: AP

Xenophobic attacks have been on the rise in Russia for a number of years now, and Yevgeni Volk from Moscow's Yeltsin Foundation says the government is losing its grip on the ultra-nationalists.

"It's really clear that the ultra-nationalist forces, which were explicitly supported by the government for many years as a counter balance to the democratic opposition, have really increased their clout in the country," he told Deutsche Welle.

"Now it looks like the government has lost control of these radical xenophobic forces inside Russia. I believe it's really a very dangerous phenomenon which could backfire on the authorities themselves."

Pulling the strings

For some observers, the remarkable thing about the mostly young ultra-nationalists is the thought and planning that goes into their demonstrations.

Following the arrests over the weekend, Anatoli Kucherena, a leading lawyer and member of Russia's Public Chamber told Deutsche Welle that there was no doubt that the protest was being orchestrated.

Police and protesters
Moscow's riot police have been kept busyImage: AP

"Someone is definitely behind it, there is some sort of puppeteer who directs the youths and calls for them to hit the streets and fight," he said.

Kantemir Hurtayev, deputy chairman of the Russian Congress of Caucasian Peoples, agrees that someone is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

"To get about 5,000 demonstrators to gather on Manege Square [in Moscow] is not easy. Only about 30 people come to demos against xenophobia in the media or against nationalism in general," Hurtayev told Deutsche Welle.

"I'm convinced that there is a lot of work done in advance to mobilize these young people and stage this chaos. The youths may not have completely figured it out, but they are the henchmen of a provocateur."

Lack of coherent strategy

Some say the nationalists' ability to organize themselves only makes the government's shortcomings more apparent.

The police can quickly sweep up hundreds of potentially violent demonstrators when they gather for a protest, but critics argue that this doesn't help deal with the problem of racism in the longer term.

"I think [the Kremlin has] a strategy, but the strategy is too weak and is not effective enough," Alexander Rahr from the German Council on Foreign Relations told Deutsche Welle. "A lot of words and no real deeds."

Rahr added that frustration in Russia about worsening economic and social problems, as well as a feeling of helplessness by those in the lower class about their ability to change things, translates into aggression.

"That is now being directed toward migrants, who are being blamed for all these shortcomings in the economic and social system," he said.

New demos planned

Vladimir Putin
Putin has vowed a severe response to the violenceImage: AP

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has vowed to "respond severely" to the violence. But recent opinion polls show that Muscovites are growing increasingly anxious about the number of non-ethnic Russians in the city.

At the same time, a wave of anti-nationalist rhetoric has emerged in the Russian segment of the Internet, dividing the society into two camps. Another massive nationalist gathering under the slogan “Screw the Caucasus” is scheduled for December 25th.

Author: Anya Ardayeva, Jegor Winogradow (mz)
Editor: Chuck Penfold