History will show December 2010 exploded with gang warfare in the streets of Moscow and with similar outbreaks in St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and even the southern city of Krasnodar. All observers agreed that the battles involving thousands of young men, ages 15-30, were ethnic-based. And that is only part of the story.
The police estimated six thousand youths in total clashed within a stone’s throw of the Kremlin on Manezh Square. From the beginning the motives of the various groups involved were confused. Football club partisans mixed with ethnic Slavs battled North Caucasus immigrants and other groups smashing each other with all manner of weapons from scrap pipe and lumber to costly imported aluminum American baseball bats. Thirty rioters were hospitalized, though there is general agreement that hundreds were injured. One man was confirmed killed by stabbing. Ultimately the police reportedly arrested more than 1,300 people.
Ordinary Muscovites were appalled, though not at all surprised, at the bloody street warfare. The police apparently had no set plan on how to handle the situation, although there have been numerous claims that the authorities clearly favored the far right nationalist groups. Perhaps the key to police reaction and alignment is the fact that many of its members had fought in Chechnya and instinctively are against the Caucasian minority living in Moscow and environs. At least that’s one of the theories currently espoused by Moscow’s journalist community.
Moscow always has produced provocative theories on why things exist as they do. In the instance of riots that supposedly began in reaction to the shooting death of an FC Spartak football fan, Yegor Sviridov, the dominant theme has been the racial division of Russian football (soccer) supporters. Initially the violence pitted nationalist right-wing Slavs against mostly Chechen fans of FC Spartak’s rivals. Soon the conflict was expanded to right-wing nationalists, including neo-Nazi skinheads, with Caucasian and Central Asia immigrants on the other side.
The political rumor mill went into action and the results were extraordinary. The tale that seemed to attract most foreign observers was one in which PM Vladimir Putin had encouraged the entire outbreak of violence in order to prove to the public how much he was needed to enforce law and order. This story since has been linked to the suggestion that hooligans have been recruited and paid by the government security components to provide the ability to counter “unauthorized ” demonstrations such as those recently of environmentalists. (See my December 17 column, “Corruption and Leadership in Russia.”)
President Dmitry Medvedev uncharacteristically entered the fray early on by blaming the race-based riots on investigators who’d released suspects in the shooting of Yegor Sviridov. “Why did [the investigators] do this? Were they afraid? Was it for money?” Medvedev was quoted by the Russian News and Information Agency (RIA Novosti). “All those who killed the fan should be identified and imprisoned,” he added. A very strong statement — except the people Medvedev called upon to arrest the individuals who let the suspected perpetrators go were in fact the same people — the Moscow police!
To this confusion has been added the recognition of, as the Financial Times put it, “… a Kremlin-backed political movement designed to control the streets and prevent a confrontation with democratic political forces in the wake of the ‘Rose’ and ‘Orange’ revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine.” Apparently the current Russian regime is fearful that it might be overthrown by street democracy and expects to use their organized bullyboys to sweep away such demonstrations. This perhaps is considered less brutal than using the militia. Logical? Only if viewed from behind the Kremlin walls.
The youths that make up one of these organizations, “Nashi,” are drawn from football hooligans and skinheads who respond favorably to right-wing rhetoric and violence for so-called sport. Another organization of an even more racist orientation is “Russian Image.” It held an openly neo-Nazi “Russian March” with official permission in late 2009. These are supposed to be defenders of Russian nationalism. They could not exist without government sanction in some form.
There appears to be a direct correlation between Putin’s tough guy image and the respect for his leadership given by racist Russian youth gangs. From an operational standpoint it is impressive that these organizations have the ability on relatively short notice to pull together thousands of supporters and bring them into the streets of central Moscow and other major cities. That these gangs hold Vladimir Putin as their idol says a great deal about the way the current prime minister and former president has used Slavic ultra-nationalism in the consolidation of his personal power. To overlook Putin’s totalitarian inclination, is to disregard reality. At this stage it is hard to tell if one is dealing with Moscow of 2011 or Munich of 1933.
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