On the eve of this year’s Day of National Unity, on November 4, ethnic Russians and migrant workers clashed in a Moscow neighborhood, leading to a media circus in which Margarita Simonyan of RT denounced “persons of Caucasus nationality” for attacking Russians. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov condemned her for using that highly offensive term and for ignoring the fact that all those involved were Russian citizens. The Kremlin later argued that, in reality, the violence had nothing to do with ethnic differences. President Vladimir Putin’s regime quickly orchestrated a rapprochement between Simonyan and Kadyrov and threw a blanket of silence over the events, leading many to conclude that the situation was a one-off event and not part of a more serious trend. But there are compelling reasons to think that any such conclusion is wrong.
First of all, migrant workers from Russia’s North Caucasus as well as foreign laborers from Central Asia now form an increasing share of the population in many urban neighborhoods across the Russian Federation. In some, they represent nearly half of the population and continue to grow in number. As a result, they are ever less ready to integrate into Russian society, instead preferring to live separately and according to their own cultures. This trend infuriates many Russians, who are accustomed to seeing migrants learn the Russian language and assimilate.
Second, the Kremlin’s attacks on the remaining vestiges of federalism mean that many of the native non-Russians are also angrier than they have been.
Third, to the frustration and anxiety of the Kremlin, Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia are devoting more attention to ethnic issues within Russia, sparking fears in Moscow that they will destabilize the situation—much as Moscow claims the West did to break up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Fourth, because of Putin’s “optimization” program, the police have cut their presence in many Moscow neighborhoods, with some having only 60 law enforcement officers per 100,000 people and not the 500 per 100,000 the Russian Federation has on average. This proportion could lead to a situation in which the authorities are unable to control things. Some observers fear that a situation like that, which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago, is reemerging and threatening the Russian Federation with a similar fate.
And fifth, and certainly most ominously from a short-term perspective, the ethnic-Russian population in at least one Moscow suburb, having given up on the authorities both local and federal, is now forming self-defense units to protect its own members against what they see as a threat to their lives and property by growing numbers of migrant workers. Indeed, some Russians feel the authorities are more interested in protecting the rights of immigrant workers who serve business owners than ensuring the rights of Russian citizens. The attitudes of many of the ethnic Russians involved is captured by the remark of one commentator who asks, “Why, having come to the ethnic-Russian part of Russia, do these ‘respected people’ conduct themselves like swine?”. Dmitry Grigoryev of the URA news agency describes how these Russian self-defense units have come about and what their appearance points to in the future.
According to the URA journalist, the situation in the Sosenskoye settlement, on the edge of Moscow, has been deteriorating for some time. Many Russians with middle-class aspirations had moved there, and they have been infuriated by the influx of migrants, who now constitute nearly half of the population and whose children make up more than half of those in local schools. A string of thefts and rapes last summer led activists there to appeal to local and federal officials to take action, but the government did not stop what ethnic Russians see as “a clash of two different civilizations.” Consequently, they have decided to take matters into their own hands, guarding property, reporting on violations of the law by the new arrivals, and providing escorts to women returning home after dark. Up to now, these self-defense units have stayed within the letter of the law, although the existence of such privately organized police forces—particularly given their attitudes and likely possession of arms—suggests serious problems could erupt in the event of any clashes.
Moscow-based commentators are worried. Gevorg Mirzayan, a political scientist at the Finance University, says that when he lived in Tashkent in the 1980s, ethnic relations were fine until the city was flooded with migrants from the countryside who brought in what he calls “kishlak nationalism.” They were the ones who promoted the nationalism that tore the Soviet Union apart, he contends. Today, it is not the non-Russians coming into the cities who are the problem, Mirzayan writes, but rather the Russian nationalists already living there. They are responding in ways like these self-defense units; and that situation will only lead to a dangerous spiral of non-Russian nationalism followed by an even more serious growth in Russian nationalism—all beyond the capacity of the regime to control. The Kremlin is incorrect to think that blocking the radical right’s annual Russian March street demonstration is enough, the academic concludes.
Moskovsky Komsomolets observer Dmitry Popov asserts that the Kremlin, out of touch with this problem, is making it worse. He says that Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s statement that the recent clashes had no nationality component is absurd. “By the same logic, it would be the case that the 1986 events in Alma-Ata [today’s Almaty, Kazakhstan]” were not ethnically based because all those involved in that deadly conflict were “citizens of the USSR.” Unless those in power start calling things by their own names, he continues, there is no chance that the situation will not soon worsen. When people determine that the state will not enforce its laws and protect all sides in conflicts, the government will see its power slip away into the hands of those in the streets ready to act on their own. That is a warning that the Kremlin cannot ignore for long, however deep in denial it is.
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