Xenophobia and Vigilantism
A young ultranationalist lights up a rally
Kondopoga, Karelia Region -- this small industrial town not far from Finland has been the center of attention for two weeks straight in Russia. Northern Russians living in the area are known for their calm character; it is usually difficult to provoke them into a fight. But on the night of September 1, 2006, angry Kondopoga rioted and set fire to a school attended by Muslim children, as well as a public market, several grocery stores, and a restaurant, all properties owned by local Chechen migrants; they also fought with police SWAT teams that tried to disperse the riot. The next morning, September 2, thousands of people gathered without a demonstration permit. Most of the crowd demanded that city officials deport "every settler from Caucuses in the next 24 hours."
Russia Blog will try to explain why this usually peaceful town of 40,000 has been guarded around the clock for two weeks by SWAT teams and army units, and why dozens of Russian members of Parliament, human rights activists and anti-immigration groups have entered the fray. The incident might look like a brief spasm of xenophobia, but the roots of the conflict run deep.
The violence started on the night of August 29, 2006, with a brawl at the restaurant "Chaika" (Seagull), which is owned by Chechen businessmen. Someone called "security" and several young Chechen men showed up with knives and metal clubs. Three ethnic Russian men were stabbed or beaten to death in the ensuing melee. Worst of all, local police stood by and did nothing as the violence escalated and many other unlucky restaurant patrons were attacked by the Chechen "security" gang. The Chechen assailants got away, and news of the murders and police fecklessness quickly spread through town via word of mouth and cellphones. Adding to the citizens' indignation was the fact that the Chechen restaurant owner had been allowed to drive his new white Mercedes without license plates in town for weeks, violating nearly every traffic law. Local cops had been well paid to turn a blind eye to these illegal activities, and now the town was fed up with the corrupt militsia.
After the attacks on businesses began, Chechen families who were living in Kondopoga were evacuated for their own safety to the nearby city of Petrozavodsk. The regional government has asked local stores to stop selling alcohol until tensions have eased. The Chechen parliament sent several MPs to defend the rights of Chechens in the region, but security forces informed the parliamentarians that they could not guarantee their safety. The Chechen government also has thanked the Governor of Karelia, Sergei Katanandov, for quickly calling up reserve security forces to restore order and protect Chechens from further violence. Chechens are citizens of the Russian Federation and do not want violence to be associated with their ethnicity.
Young uniformed activists from the "Movement Against Illegal Immigration" (DPNI) - photo from Exile.ru
Unfortunately, there are many fascist and ultranationalist groups in Russia, and last week they quickly sent members into the region to exploit the situation for maximum propaganda value. Most ordinary Russians refuse to associate with these hatemongers or take their xenophobic message seriously, but in Kondopoga some angry citizens reportedly welcomed the skinheads into their homes, and many journalists interviewed these self-appointed spokesmen for the town's residents from organizations like the DPNI.
There is a terrible amount of corruption in Russia, and for centuries taking bribes has been accepted as a way of life. When we see ultranationalists attempting to seize the spotlight and exploit a tragedy it doesn't mean that Russia is turning fascist, but a corrupt system without the rule of law definitely makes fascism more attractive to young Russians.
The Kondopoga story is not as simple as racist Russians attacking anyone who does not look like them or have the same religion. In recent years, criminal gangs from the Caucuses have bribed police and often intimidated people with impunity, and young Russian thugs have taken revenge against innocent Caucasians who have nothing to do with these mafias.
Russia is a multi-national, multi-ethnic country, where Muslims and Christians, whites and darker skinned peoples have lived and fought side by side for centuries. The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union kept these ethnic tensions in check. However, the 1990s brought chaos to all layers of Russian life - business, politics and society. Without a strong central government, local governors and police became totally unaccountable and accepted bribes from organized crime. Now we are seeing a terrible back clash against this failure to enforce Russian laws.
The Kondopoga incident comes only weeks after the terrorist bombing of a Moscow marketplace, where three Slavic students targeted immigrants from the Caucuses and Central Asia. The suspected terrorists, all from middle class families in Moscow, have clearly been steeped in the kind of xenophobic propaganda the Rodina Party and other xenophobic groups spread among young people. Last year, the Russian government opened a criminal investigation of Rodina for inciting ethnic hatred with a television ad referring to people from the Caucuses as "dirt". The Russian government did not allow Rodina to take part in the last election, due to their violations of hate crime laws.
Russians have historically addressed problems only when there is no other choice, when it is almost too late. An old Russian saying demonstrates this attitude: "The man will not cross himself, until the thunder is rumbling", which means that rather than repenting and changing his ways, a Russian man will ignore his faults until he must change to survive. Russia is now faced with that choice, continue doing business as usual and witness more violence, or crack down and create some semblance of the rule of law.