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Moscow Times
September 6, 2006
Learning the Lessons of Kondopoga

Rioting and racially motivated violence in the northwestern town of Kondopoga last week shone a spotlight on one of the most serious problems facing society today: ethnic tensions.

In Kondopoga, the unrest was sparked by a bar fight involving Slavs and an Azeri bartender. Two Slavs died. Soon the town was torn apart by angry mobs of Slavic youths. Natives of the Caucasus residing in the town fled for their lives.

Xenophobia and racism are hardly unique to this country, but they pose a particular threat to the stability and well-being of a society that comprises some 75 distinct ethnic groups.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said Tuesday that the unrest in Kondopoga was the result of the government's inability to develop a clear, effective nationalities policy and of soaring unemployment in the North Caucasus, which forces many to move elsewhere in search of work.

Over the last 15 years, most towns have acquired a signficant number of residents from the Caucasus and Central Asia, who have fled armed conflict as well as economic collapse at home.

Zyuganov was only half right, however.

The government should be working to improve economic conditions in the country's poorer, southern regions and to rebuild areas, such as Chechnya, which have been ravaged by war.

But the real lesson of Kondopoga has to do with tolerance.

Legal immigrants to this country and migrants from the North Caucasus have the Constitutional right to live and work where they like without fearing for their safety. The riots in Kondopoga make clear that, at present, they enjoy this right only on paper.

Those guilty of murder and looting in Kondopoga must be brought to justice, of course. But the government cannot stop there if it wants to address the underlying problem that ripped this small town apart.

First and foremost, the authorities must ensure that the natives of the Caucasus who fled Kondopoga and sought shelter among relatives and friends in neighboring cities are allowed to return and get on with their lives.

If this doesn't happen, xenophobic extremists across the country might decide that this sort of behavior is permissible. And that could shred the very fabric of this multi-ethnic society.

The real lesson of Kondopoga is the need for tolerance. The government should take the lead in driving this lesson home.