Drunks and Detours in Russia's Unquiet August: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

This summer has been rough for aspiring lawbreakers in Russia. Just as riots were dying down last week in London, they found their analogue in downtown Moscow early Sunday morning as hooligans took to the streets. Their efforts, though, didn’t have quite the same impact.

On the central Rozhdestvenka Street “a group of youths between fourteen and twenty-two years of age gathered” and were quickly joined by two hundred more, reported Itar-Tass. The Ministry of the Interior’s press center stated that “a majority of them were in a non-sober state and tried to block traffic,” and that police quickly dispatched special divisions, patrol cars, and rapid-reaction units “with the intent of preventing mass violations of public order.” Contrary to what one might expect, neither politics nor ethnic rancor had fired up the booze-addled, would-be vandals; “an extreme sports championship” had. After conducting “prophylactic talks” with the youths and making arrests, the police identified a pair of twenty-two-year-old Muscovites as the failed event’s initiators and charged them with “petty hooliganism.”

Russian law-enforcement authorities have far more lethal threats than hooliganism, petty or otherwise, to worry about. On Monday, Kommersant reported that the Federal Security Service disrupted a plot last month to blow up the prestigious, high-speed Sapsan train running between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Had the plot succeeded, the country would have suffered a terrorist attack with “victims numbering in the hundreds” -- the third attack in the past four years against high-speed trains connecting Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The four suspects, natives of the predominantly Muslim Caucasus region and Mordovia, a republic in central Russia, allegedly conspired to detonate an explosive device made of fertilizer, batteries, and wires in the environs of Firsanovka station, in a northern Moscow suburb. The planned violence was presumed to have a political motive: revenge. Alleged bomber Murad Eldibiyev, wrote Kommersant, “agreed to become a terrorist because, back in 1999, he saw how his ‘comrades were perishing’ in the assaults launched by federal troops” during the war in the southern republic of Chechnya, and how “servicemen were grossly ‘violating the rights of [Chechnya’s] citizens.’” Kommersant also noted that “all preparations for the terrorist attack took place under the surveillance of FSB agents” who arrested the four on 7 and 8 July. They have been charged with “illegally manufacturing and storing a weapon and ammunition.”

Down in the Caucasus itself, the terrorist menace persists. Authorities in Khasavyut, Daghestan, acting on a tip from a local resident, found a bomb when inspecting a truck parked near a flea market, according to Itar-Tass. The device consisted of "a metal tube a yard long and 55 centimeters wide” that was “stuffed with explosive material” equivalent to a hundred kilograms of TNT. Thankfully, “it was deactivated on the spot.”

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For the past three months, strutting Muscovites have weaved their way around municipal employees, mostly Central Asian migrant laborers, hard at work ripping up the capital’s asphalt sidewalks and replacing them with ash-colored bricks. The Moscow Times reported that the inconvenience was just the beginning of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin's $136 million project to lay 4 million square meters of brick sidewalk over the next few years.

As usual, the project is has attracted conspiracy theories of the kind that in Russia often prove to be at least partly true. "The facelift … was ordered without a City Duma vote or a public discussion, opening the door to speculation about its purpose. …City Hall has been forced to fend off media reports that Sobyanin's wife has a finger in the sidewalk pie, and experts have questioned whether the bricks will really be better for Moscow than good old asphalt." The mayor’s office has strongly denied that either Sobyanin or his wife, who in the early 2000s managed a brick-making factory in Siberia, would profit from the urban renewal efforts.

The way the bricks are laid may be causing problems, contended Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose reporter quoted a middle-aged stroller distressed by the wide interstices between the bricks: “I feel sorry for girls on high heels. Look at the spaces between the bricks! Your heel slips into one and that’s the end of it!” Plastic barriers direct pedestrians into the often traffic-clogged streets, posing a threat to all afoot, especially mothers with baby carriages. An expert, however, told the newspaper that “from the ecological point of view, the bricks are no doubt better. You see, asphalt is a petroleum byproduct. When it heats up . . . it gives off toxic substances.”

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Perhaps, as many Russians think, the country’s intractable problems stem from corruption in high places. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, according to rbc.ru, implied as much in a press conference he gave on Wednesday, on the eve of the hard-line coup attempt against him that took place twenty years ago this month.

“There must be a change at the top level of government,” he told journalists. “It’s about time we climb out of the rut we’re in . . . The policies and proposals of the current government represent a move backwards.”

Just who does Gorbachev think might be fit to lead? “I like [Mikhail] Prokhorov,” citing the nickel and gold magnate (and owner of the New Jersey Nets) who, in May, joined the pro-business party Right Cause, and has criticized the Medvedev-Putin diarchy. “He’s tired of the oligarchs and wants to become premier.”

We’ll see about that. State Duma elections are scheduled for December, but United Russia, though losing support according to opinion surveys, looks set to win them. Presidential polls are due to take place next March. They still lack one thing: candidates.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.



-0- Aug/19/2011 02:43 GMT