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Are the Moscow Riots Symptoms of Larger Political Trouble?

Demonstrators with Flares Near Kremlin WallsMoscow has seen its worst week of ethnic tensions in decades, culminating in mass rioting by soccer fans and Russian nationalists in central Moscow just yards away from the Red Square. Longstanding tensions between ethnic Russian nationalists and minorities from the North Caucasus had escalated after the fatal shooting of a Moscow soccer fan during a street fight earlier this month with members of an ethnic Caucasus group. Are the ethnic clashes a symptom of larger political trouble in Russia in the near future?

The riots on December 11 were spurred by the release of all the detained suspects in the case, in what appeared to be a corrupt police act facilitated by bribes from the local Caucasian community. Then, on December 15, more than 1,000 people ­ many armed with knives, clubs and stun guns ­ were arrested in central Moscow in an attempt to prevent further clashes, when rumors swirled that ethnic minorities were planning to retaliate.

The Kremlin's response to the riots showed the government's weakness and disorientation. On the worst day of rioting President Dmitry Medvedev went to an Elton John concert and responded to the news with a Twitter message that "everything was under control." He later denounced the violence as "pogroms," and promised that those responsible for it would be punished.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was nowhere to be seen when riot police clashed with enraged soccer fans less than a mile from his office, and made his first inconsequential comments a full day after the riot on Manezh Square. Throughout the entire week he appeared disoriented and detached from reality, showing more interest in discussing Moscow's traffic or a new Spartak FC stadium in the Tushino District than keeping public order. The disturbances may have undermined his reputation as an effective administrator.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in on the situation only on Thursday, December 16, five days after the riots, in his televised Q&A session with the Russian people. He blamed "liberals" for provoking the violence with their insistence on staging unsanctioned rallies on Triumfalnaya Square. Putin also blamed the police for the unrest, saying that Moscow investigators should never have released the three North Caucasus suspects linked to the killing.

Some observers have noted that the violent clashes could be symptoms of much deeper political dysfunction or even "degeneration" in Putin-Medvedev Russia. They point to the failure of the regime's approach in the North Caucasus or the failure of Kremlin policies to maintain the political activity of the young under control.

President Medvedev's image has also been damaged, as he appeared as a weak and detached leader, more interested in posting tweets than taking decisive action. The violence in Moscow has sidelined Medvedev's favorite topic ­ modernization, and the major international conference at Skolkovo Innovation Center under his sponsorship went largely unnoticed.
Several observers also saw the riots as the result of maneuvering by Putin's and Medvedev's forces over the presidential succession. Were disorder and violence in Moscow to continue or even spread to other parts of Russia, Medvedev's political modernization agenda would be sidelined and public calls for a crackdown could justify a return to more authoritarian rule. Putin all but hinted at this in his tough words for Russia's liberal opposition in his televised discourse with the nation.

Do the protests reflect popular revolt at the regime's corruption and ineptitude, as many claim, or is it simply an isolated incident over a specific murder case that should not be extrapolated to the overall political picture? Could it really be a staged provocation to justify a return to a tougher rule, ostensibly provoking public calls for Putin's return to the presidency? Have the riots irreparably damaged president Medvedev's image? Why would Putin, and almost at the same moment First Deputy Chief of Staff to the President Vladislav Surkov, blame the liberal opposition for the disorder? What political significance might this have? Will ethnic tensions continue to rise in Russia, threatening the very existence of the Russian state?

Sergei Roy, Independent Political Analyst, Moscow:

The Russian top leadership's response to the disturbances by the Kremlin wall on December 11 has been nothing short of political disaster. Medvedev, enjoying an Elton John concert, tweets "everything under control" while OMON riot police return to base in gloomy silence. For one thing, they proved no match for the thousands amassed on Manezh Square to protest the killing of their comrade. For another, being mostly Russians, they felt the same about those murderous newcomers from the Caucasus as they felt about the angry young men they fought on the Manezh.

In his December 16 Q&A television show premier Putin lashed out, for no apparent reason, against the liberal intelligentsia that had nothing to do with the riots. True, he also blamed the corrupt police officers who released the murderous North Caucasus gang for an all-too-obvious bribe. However, treating the episode as a mere police matter is painfully inadequate. Putin must be aware of this, and talking the way he did is just a sign of his helplessness and inability to cope with the situation.

Medvedev's later reaction was even worse. Feeling that he had flopped dismally, he staged an angry performance in front of police and military heads in Ryazan, talking of "pogroms," "extremists," and even "fascists." Ever since World War II, the word "fascist" has been simply a term of abuse in Russia. Applying it to millions of his subjects who feel exactly like the young men on Manezh and elsewhere is a political gaffe to end all gaffes. From now on, Medvedev is just a hollow man, a stuffed man. The trouble is ­ Putin is not much better. A poor lookout for 2012 for both.

The political regime these two personify refuses to recognize the reality that threatens to destroy not just the regime, but also the country itself. The reality is this: the population of Russia (not just the 79.8 percent of it that are Russians, but practically everyone else who is not a North-Caucasian) is under a sustained attack from the Muslim migrants from the North Caucasus ­ from Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, etc.

Those North Caucasus "republics" have either fully carried out ethnic cleansing (as in Chechnya, which has murdered or thrown out all of its non-Chechens) or are doing their damndest to squeeze out any non-natives still left there. But that's just stage one. All of those regions are basket cases in terms of the economy (say, in Ingushetia unemployment is 56 percent), so the next stage is spreading throughout Russia ­ and as good as conquering it, taking over businesses, municipal and other administrative institutions, and behaving most aggressively toward locals.

A few factors go for the invaders. The Muslims, apart from being united in faith, mostly of the radical Islamist variety, are well organized. The organization is primitive, of the tribal or clannish sort, but quite effective. The invaded locals rely on the police and government to protect them, but they rely in vain. The police are simply suborned, as in the Egor Sviridov case and thousands of others, while the local and federal governments refuse to admit the fact of ethnic strife, automatically mumbling inanities about mere "hooliganism" where ethnic strife is plainer than the noses on their faces.

Another fact of life is that the invaders, one and all, are armed and are using weapons on the slightest provocation as well as without it. Their young have been brought up on Chechen ("Ichkerian") videos from the two Chechen wars and hate all Russians indiscriminately. The weaponless Russians (Russian speakers, actually), accustomed to living in ethnic peace for decades, were slow to react at first. Manezh has shown that things are changing. Blaming Russian "extremists" and nationalists for this is plain pathetic.

Russia's political class, busy jockeying for power and division and re-division of the country's assets, simply refuses to admit that it is sitting on top of a volcano. Well, in the late 1980s the Mikhail Gorbachev bunch behaved in much the same way ­ and lost the country.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT, and Vitaly Strokanov, Senior Lecturer, Izhevsk State Technical University, Chaikovsky, Russia:

Certainly we are witnessing a new political challenge that the Russian leadership, elite and society in general will have to deal with in the foreseeable future. It also may serve as another argument in favor of the tandem's rule in Russia. President Medvedev again seemed to be out of touch with the reality and did not demonstrate a deep understanding of the events. At the same time, Vladimir Putin's meeting with the leaders of soccer fan organizations and their joint visit to the grave of Yegor Sviridov, murdered by a group of young people from the North Caucasus, can be considered the best action by the government so far, the only regret being that it did not take place earlier.

Youth revolts and riots are not something extraordinary. Youth was often a vanguard of revolutionary changes, but it also was used by the most dark and ugly forces, like the Nazis. Historical parallels could be drawn, of course, and the best would be with the final years of the Soviet Union, marked with its demonstrations and ethnic clashes. However, to describe the recent events in Russian cities we would strongly oppose the use of such terms as popular revolt, revolutionaries, fascists, and even the term "pogroms." In our opinion we are witnessing the radical and extreme reaction of youth to the status quo that could be harnessed later by destructive forces. Consequently, it requires serious analysis and governmental action because of the tragedies that it has already caused, and the danger that it potentially represents for the existence of a multinational country.

According to online statistics, from 65 young people detained on Manezh Square on December 11, 49 were unemployed and 11 were students. This is not a coincidence. We think that the first reason for these events is social conflict rooted in the reality of life in Russian cities, where money can buy everything while many young people find themselves without clear prospects for the future, poor and angry. Russian capitalism in the last 20 years has given birth not only to a few oligarchs and ultra-rich people (whom Vladimir Putin recently called "people of the world"), but it greatly succeeded in creating a large, impoverished, unemployed and primarily young "Lumpenproletariat."

Older people who used to work in factories that are already closed or are in the process of being wiped out of Moscow and other cities have bitterly accepted their fate. However, their children have still not done so, and they are trying to find those guilty for their problems. So far we have seen only the tip of iceberg, because the same problem in small towns is even sharper. In other Eastern European countries young people have gone to work in Western Europe, where their life may be horrifying by local standards, but is still better than what they have at home. Meanwhile, for the Russian youth this is not an option.

Do we have similar tendencies in Western Europe? Of course, but they are mostly found among immigrants from Turkey, North Africa and other Islamic countries who periodically riot, as we often see in France. In Russian cities young people who belong to the ethnic and cultural majority have found themselves in that position. At the same time, large cities in the country have been recently flooded with newcomers, many of whom are also Russian citizens but who are originally from the North Caucasus. They work in various markets, running them in a corrupt, ethnic mafia style, and often doing much better than regular Moscow residents who shop at those markets.

Ethnic gangs from the same region are another problem, as they are responsible today for the rise of violent crime, including murder and rape. According to the head of the Moscow police department, migrants are responsible for 70 percent of crime in the city. Additionally, cultural norms and public behavior are quite different between people of Slavic origin and newcomers from the mountains, leading to the incredible combination of social, legal, ethnic, and cultural conflict. On top of this combination comes the horrifying corruption of Russian governmental and law enforcement officials.

The fact that several suspects (who turned out to be young people from the North Caucasus) in the murder case of a soccer fan in Moscow were allowed by prosecutors to walk out of the police station the same night they were detained was really shocking.

As always the question is: what is to be done? First of all, simply work with people, learning from the mistakes of Gorbachev's time, and do everything not to allow Russia to follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, although there are forces that would like to use the momentum for the destruction of Russia inside and outside the country.

Secondly, develop a successful policy for a young and multinational Russia, which actually the presidential administration was supposed to do a long time ago. The best here would be to use the experience of the Komsomol that is unfortunately impossible to restore, but still possible to learn from.

Thirdly, it is the time to eliminate corruption before this evil eliminates Russia as a country.

Fourthly, law enforcement must follow a zero tolerance policy toward any violations of the law, order and cultural norms regardless of the nationality of the violators, being in particular intolerant to ethnic and nationalistic criminal structures whatever ethnicity they represent. Russian liberals also must understand that unauthorized political action should have no place regardless of its character, contingent or ideological standing. Otherwise, tomorrow we can already discern even more ugly events ­ as the Russian proverb goes "bad examples are contagious."

Finally, attempts by some liberals like Vladimir Milov to marry liberalism with ethnic nationalism are quite revealing and evidently back up the words of Vladimir Putin, showing that these people want power and money, and we would like to add, at any cost and regardless of the ways and friends they use to get it. This really stinks.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

The riot on Manezh Square in Moscow is not a symptom of "larger political trouble." Given the scale of the event and the size and complexity of Russia, this riot has a proportionate political significance far lesser than some may suppose.

There is a deeper, perhaps more complex and in the long-term more difficult problem, which has to do with inter-ethnic hostility in Russia, which must be studied objectively and resolved with commensurate actions. This aspect we shall discuss later.

The description of the Manezh events must include the very important detail that an initially approved meeting in memoriam of the killed football fan was peacefully conducted nearby, after which a contingent of rioters marched on their own with the intention of creating disturbance on Manezh Square. Moscow police responded no less effectively than the police of any other large capital would respond, and contained the riot rather quickly and more effectively than in London, Paris or Athens.

This attempt to transform a sanctioned peaceful meeting into a confrontation with police and a riot is what caused Putin to compare the Manezh events with the "Other Russia" actions (the "31" demonstrations) which quite obviously use a similar tactic to generate police confrontation and arrests. This technique goes as far back as that famous demonstration, which became known as the Bloody Sunday of 1905, and even earlier similar episodes in world history. It is an old, tested and commonly used method to provoke violent police response and thus radicalize the public in favor of the demonstrators.

Putin's other comment in his Town Hall teleconference was an accurate and sarcastic reminder to liberal critics of Russian police that these critics may be put in a position to have to enforce law and order by themselves, against neo-Nazi rioters.

The commentary about "inactivity" or "distancing" by the mayor of Moscow or other government officials and agencies is specious and inaccurate. In these situations, the response must be calibrated in scope, force and timeliness. After all, this was one brief riot by a few thousand people in one city of Russia. Yes, it was in the capital and the riot was "spectacular" but the extent of the violence was highly localized and short-lived. Would the introduction of martial law in Moscow, or rifle salvos like those on Palace Square in 1905, be commensurate? One thinks not.

Very effective were the subsequent preventive measures used to check for weapons and to control the congregation of young hotheads who intended to continue riots over subsequent days. This was a suitable police response, and it worked well.

The root cause of the riot is not political ­ it is social and cultural. There is a need for thorough, scientific, depoliticized and completely objective study of behavior that causes ethnic tensions. Generally, commentary that is ideologically committed to a "liberal paradigm" is not only biased, but also even worse ­ it is blissfully ignorant of its own bias. This defect is highly adverse to a balanced and objective solution of the problem.

There are people who hope for political destabilization in Russia. Ultimately, they would love a return to the "wild 1990s." Such people need to understand from the Manezh riot that a destabilization of Russia would very possibly result in the emergence of a truly extremist power center, and even a new extremist government. People who admire Weimar Germany must remember the ultimate outcome of that arrangement.

The riot on Manezh was not a political action. It did reflect real social problems that need to be addressed in the long-term, and resolved by the firm and equitable application of law.


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