Budanov exposes divisions

From the shooting of former Colonel Yury Budanov until his funeral, Moscow police lived through three anxious days and nights. Rioting by Russian nationalist groups was anticipated, but in the end nothing happened.

A decade ago Budanov, a regimental commander in the second Chechen war, was arrested and tried for the murder of 18-year old Chechen girl Elsa Kungayeva, whom he kidnapped from her home in the village of Tangi-Chu.

Budanov confessed to the killing but claimed Kungayeva was a suspected sniper, and said that he suffered from temporary dementia when he strangled her to death. There was strong evidence that Budanov raped Kungayeva, but this charge was later dropped. Budanov was sentenced to 10 years, but released early in 2009 "for good behavior."

Nationalists claimed that an honest Russian officer had been unjustly condemned to please the Chechens. Liberals and human rights activists said Budanov was a war criminal who symbolized everything that was wrong with the war in Chechnya, the army and the state.

When Budanov walked free, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov declared the Chechens would never forgive him or forget his crime.

After last Friday's murder, many Russians have pointed the finger at the Chechens, claiming they have finally got their man. Others say it was a nationalist provocation aimed at destabilizing the country.

The wave of sympathy for Budanov after his death was shown by a poll by Ekho Moskvy, which found that nearly 50 percent of listeners were convinced of Budanov's innocence, despite his confession.

One journalist who covered the Chechen war commented on Yezhednevny Zhurnal: "Why do we have to choose a convicted war criminal as our symbol?! Why not the hundreds of honest officers and men, who did not rape and murder civilians, but fought in Chechnya with honor and courage?"

Budanov's killing has shown that Russia is still a divided society with a dysfunctional moral focus. The debates of nearly a decade ago, when Budanov was on trial, have not gone away.

There are several conclusions that can be drawn.

First, a large chunk of society considers violence to be normal, and even a solution to Russia's problems. "Wipe out the Chechens, wipe out the immigrants, wipe out the intelligentsia ­ and the world will be perfect," is the message behind the support for Budanov.

Second, Russians do not accept Chechens as their fellow citizens. In this respect the pacification policy of the last decade has failed. Chechens will be blamed for the killing even if it turns out that Budanov was shot for not repaying a business debt.

Kadyrov's extravagant behavior and Chechnya's semi-independent position, bought at a large cost to the federal budget, will breed more resentment among Russians. The North Caucasus is drifting away from Russia. The tribal, essentially pre-feudal nature of society there is in sharp conflict with Russia's atomized, uncertain and highly individualistic identity.

Third, Russia's ruling class is torn between riding a nationalist wave and controlling it. Anti-Western isolationism is the default position for many politicians and officials. But they are also afraid of the raw energy of the nationalists, for whom the country's leaders are seen as traitors.

Fourth, the situation is for now tempered by what commentator Andrei Kolesnikov called "empathy without participation". A lack of charismatic leaders also hampers the radical nationalist cause. The Kremlin will certainly seek to ensure that this remains the case.

However, the problem is that all sensible alternatives to nationalism are also being stomped out. Should this exercise in political control ever fail, which it might, the consequences could be dire.

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