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.
Russia increasingly relies on cheap labor carried out by Muslim migrants, who have played a key role in construction for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. But the large influx of migrants, many of whom speak little Russian, into the country’s nationalistic heartland has stoked social unrest.
After the United States, Russia has the second highest number of foreign migrants in the world. There are officially 11 million foreigners in the country, but Russia’s lack of visa requirements with former Soviet states makes it is difficult to keep track of arrivals. Migration officials estimate there are 3 million illegal immigrants in Russia.
In their campaigns for September’s election for mayor of Moscow, both the Kremlin’s candidate, eventual winner Sergei Sobyanin, and the opposition figurehead, Alexei Navalny, spouted anti-migrant rhetoric. Mr. Navalny, who led mass protests against Mr. Putin in 2012, is an undisguised nationalist who has attended far-right rallies.
“People are simply tired of living in fear,” said Dmitry Dyomushkin, a nationalist leader who took part in talks with police during the rioting in Moscow. “They can’t even go out into the streets anymore.”
But migrants also have faced horrific assaults. The most gruesome attack was in 2008 when nationalists beheaded a man from Tajikistan. This year also has seen a rise in aggressive raids by far-right vigilante groups on residential buildings they believe are home to illegal migrants. Human rights workers say such groups have the tacit approval of the police. In opinion polls, about 60 percent of Russians regularly indicate they agree with the nationalist slogan “Russia for the Russians.”
Problem for Putin
Rocketing ethnic tensions have proven a headache for the Kremlin. Mr. Putin has in the past described himself as a “Russian nationalist” and last year he pledged to crack down on “aggressive, provocative and disrespectful” migrants who dishonor “the customs of the Russian people.”
However, he also warned against promoting the creation of a “mono-ethnic, national Russian state,” calling it “the shortest path to both the destruction of the Russian people and Russia’s sovereignty.”
Although many nationalist leaders supported Mr. Putin in the past, they now dub him a “traitor” for allowing migrants to flood into the country.
Mr. Putin consistently has refused to introduce visas for citizens of former Soviet republics, despite the fact that 84 percent of Russians say they would welcome such a move.
“A visa regime would mean that we are pushing former Soviet republics away,” Mr. Putin said last month. “But we need to bring them closer.”
It is a stance slammed by opposition politicians.
“Can you imagine if the United States scrapped tomorrow visas for Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and, just for good measure, Haiti?” asked Mr. Milov, the opposition politician.
But human rights worker Svetlana Gannushkina suggested widespread fears of migrant crime were being “manipulated” by nationalist forces.
“People are agitated and unhappy with the authorities,” she said. “And they take this anger out on those who are weakest.”