MOSCOW — Rising ethnic tensions in Russia signal new dangers for President Vladimir Putin, who is struggling to suppress dangerous nationalist sympathies following the country’s most serious race riot in three years.
A mob chanted “Russia for Russia” earlier this week, as several thousand people marched through south Moscow’s working-class district of Biryulyovo after the killing of a young man by a reported migrant.
“White power!” yelled rioters, many with their faces covered, as they stormed into a market where large numbers of migrant workers are employed.
Others attacked foreign-looking pedestrians and overturned vehicles. Police made some 400 arrests.
“This might not be [civil] war yet, but at Biryulyovo, we witnessed the first high-profile episode of an outpouring of built-up anger in the form of civil unrest in an ordinary commuter district,” said Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician and a former deputy energy minister.
As the mob raged, security forces locked down the area around the Kremlin. Scattered fighting has also continued this week, as police detained about 300 people across Moscow on Tuesday evening.
The rattled authorities reacted to the disturbances by rounding up more than 1,200 migrants in a move Amnesty International slammed as “deeply discriminatory and obviously unlawful.”
Increase in hate crimes
Mukhamad Amin Madzhumder, the head of the Russian Federation of Migrants, warned Monday of an increase in hate crimes against the migrants, who are mainly Muslim.
“The nationalists are pursuing their political goals. This is clearly very dangerous,” he said. “We are warning migrants to be careful for now.”
The disorder was triggered by the killing of an ethnic Russian, Yegor Shcherbakov, 25, who was fatally stabbed in front of his girlfriend Oct. 10. Police said Wednesday that they had detained a 30-year-old native of Azerbaijan. The suspect was delivered to Moscow in a helicopter from the small town where he had sought to hide out near the Russian capital. His arrest was the main item on evening news bulletins.
The riot in south Moscow followed a similar attack in southern Russia this summer, when residents of a small town blocked a highway and demanded the authorities expel Chechens living there after a 16-year-old Chechen was charged with killing an off-duty soldier in a brawl.
These two disturbances were the most serious race-related turbulence in Russia since late 2010, when about 5,000 people rioted in Moscow after an ethnic Russian soccer fan was killed by a group of youths from the North Caucasus region. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev called the violence “a threat to the very stability of Russia.”
But ethnic tension has been brewing for decades.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw an increase in ethnic hostilities between ethnic Russians and mainly Muslim residents of the North Caucasus region, as well as the large numbers of migrant workers who poured into the country in the past decade from impoverished former Soviet republics in Central Asia such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.