Russia’s Nationalist Riots Rattle Putin

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July 15 (Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin had little trouble subduing the liberal, middle-class Muscovites who led mass demonstrations against his government last year. He may have a harder time dealing with the country’s nationalists.

Xenophobic fervor erupted earlier this month in the small town of Pugachev, about 600 miles southeast of Moscow. The town is named after the storied Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev, who, in the late 18th century, claimed he was Emperor Peter III and managed to take a few towns and fortresses before he was captured and beheaded on orders of Catherine the Great.

The recent trouble started with a fight over a girl. Late on July 6, 20-year-old Ruslan Mardanov, a local boy just back from his compulsory service in the airborne troops, squared off against 16-year-old Ali Nazirov, a native of Chechnya in town to visit his aunt, outside a local bar. Nazirov later admitted to killing Mardanov with a scalpel.

The murder stirred up simmering resentment against darker-skinned people from the Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya. Thousands gathered in the main square to demand that all Chechens be kicked out of town, drowning out the mayor, who sought to calm them down with the aid of a bullhorn. An angry mob tried to storm the local government building and raze a cafe frequented by people from the Caucasus. Pugachev residents temporarily cut off traffic on the local highway and attempted to block the railroad line.

Nationalist activists from other parts of Russia rushed toward Pugachev to support the rioters. “Friends! Residents of Pugachev! The entire nation is looking to you with hope!” activist Nikolai Bondarik posted on the social network vk.com. “Be more decisive. Our ancestors dived under tanks with hand grenades to protect their freedom!”

The disturbances ended only after Moscow sent in police reinforcements and the sale of alcohol in town was banned. Using a playbook developed at similar small-town riots that have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, authorities stressed the mundane nature of the initial conflict and kept people they deemed to be provocateurs out of the area. Bondarik was detained on his way to Pugachev. The town is still dry, just to be safe.

The Kremlin will have a tougher time controlling the rising nationalist sentiment of which the Pugachev riots offered only a glimpse.

The nationalist faction of the anti-Putin opposition issued a distinctly xenophobic statement arguing that the Pugachev residents had acted in justified self-defense: “The authorities’ attempts to pass off as ’extremist’ the locals’ legal protest against flagrantly defiant behavior by people from other regions, which goes against local traditions and moral norms … are reminiscent of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand.”

One of the document’s signatories was Alexei Navalny, probably the most popular anti-Putin politician in Russia and a candidate in Moscow’s coming mayoral election. Not to be outdone on a topic that has become a leitmotif in the September election, the incumbent, Putin appointee Sergei Sobyanin, stressed in an interview with the daily Izvestia that “without the crimes committed by outsiders, Moscow would be the most law-abiding city in the world.” Moscow police estimated in May that more than half the crimes registered in the Russian capital so far this year were committed by residents of other regions.

Just as the Pugachev situation unfolded, two other incidents involving Caucasus natives in Moscow garnered almost equal media attention: a clash between Dagestanis and several hundred Moscow bikers following a traffic accident, and the beating of a parliament deputy by four Dagestanis, who were later apprehended in southern Russia.

“Instructive, isn’t it?” wrote the nationalist website Sputnik & Pogrom. “You help the nation fall apart, completely denying the cold ethnic war that sometimes spills in droplets of blood into the fearful Moscow streets, and then boom -- even a deputy’s ID cannot protect you.”

Some commentators say the Kremlin’s policies have encouraged the surge in nationalism. Although Moscow’s official approach is to pacify the Caucasus region with generous subsidies from Moscow, Putin’s own populist rhetoric has stressed traditional Russian values and religion and sought to blame problems on foreigners.

“It’s no secret that day-to-day xenophobia is running high in Russia,” the daily Vedomosti said in an editorial. “In a situation of political and economic crisis the authorities are betting on a cheap new traditionalism for the electoral majority. It has to sell the leading role of the Russian people and the Orthodox Church and create the image of the hostile outsider. In the absence of physical contact with ’those damned Americans,’ Russian patriots are getting more resentful toward outsiders near them, primarily people from the Caucasus.”

The rebel leader Pugachev was beheaded in Moscow on Bolotnaya Square, which 237 years later served as the scene of last year’s mild, peaceful anti-Putin protests. By suppressing his liberal opponents, Putin may have fostered a new, nastier kind of opposition -- the xenophobes and nationalists. For Putin, who has always boasted of his success in preserving the Russian Federation as a close-knit multinational state, this is hardly a welcome development. He will soon have to choose whether to ride the nationalist wave or try to suppress it.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: bershidsky@gmail.com.

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