December was a tense month for Russia’s ruling “tandem.” President Dmitri Medvedev and Premier Vladimir Putin were confronted with violent protests after “Kavkaztsy” (natives of the volatile North Caucasus) killed Yegor Svidirov, a leading member of one of Russia’s unruly and often violent soccer fan clubs, in a Moscow brawl on December 6.
On December 8, a mob of “fans” surrounded the detention center where the Svidirov murder suspects were held, chanting “Russia for Russians!” and “Russia is not the Caucasus!” They blocked the streets and demanded that no other suspects in the killing be released. (Several suspects had been released following a threatening gathering of Kavkaztsy at the detention center.) A flurry of mass meetings around Russia followed, including a December 11 gathering of thousands on Manezh Square in Moscow, just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. The gathering turned violent as the crowd clashed with riot police and attacked people of “non-Slavic appearance.” Brawls erupted throughout the Russian capital as rioters were met with retaliation from the Kavkaztsy. The authorities called in Internal Ministry troops to restore order, riot police blocked off Red Square, and militia (the regular Russian police force) fought mobs in Moscow metro stations. Medvedev denounced the “pogrom.”
Sporadic protests and violence continued into mid-December, as Russian authorities conducted a damage-control campaign that included an investigation of the release of the Svidirov murder suspects, denunciations of clashes between “nationalities,” and conflicting signals from the tandem members. When Putin called for tighter residency-registration procedures for “migrants” to major cities, Medvedev rebuked the premier, saying Russia did not need a return to Soviet police-state methods. Nevertheless, at a meeting of the State Council on December 27, Medvedev noted that something had to be done: “Migration” was disturbing the “ethnic balance” in many Russian regions. Meanwhile, the Russian media reported on Slavs’ resentment of the migrants, who have often been implicated in organized crime.
Kremlinologists debated what was behind the popular uprising (bunt). Were the pro-Putin security men, the siloviky, deliberately provoking conflict to ease Putin’s return to the Kremlin in the 2012 presidential election? Putin’s strongman image, after all, is based on his claim to have restored “stability” after the “wild 90’s.” Critics of the “national leader” claim that Putin’s stability is largely a myth: The insurgency in the North Caucasus has spread from Chechnya, as jihad ideology has gained ground, with suicide bombers striking the Moscow metro earlier in 2010. Instability in the region has spurred the migration of the Kavkaztsy to the Russian heartland. At the same time, the November massacre of 12 people in Kushchevskaya by gangsters who had not been paid “protection” money sheds light on the dire situation in the provinces. Similar stories of murder, rape, kidnapping, and extortion by local gangs, which have merged with government and police, subsequently surfaced. The criminal rampage prompted alarmed Moscow observers to compare Russia to Third World “failed states.”
Putin denounced incompetent militia officials and bureaucrats during his annual live “direct line” TV call-in program on December 16, and at a subsequent meeting with members of soccer-fan organizations. Even after the bunt, however, Putin reserved his harshest criticism and personal anger not for the Manezh rioters or the militant Kavkaztsy, or even for corrupt officials in Kushchevskaya, but for critics of the regime who had mocked “Putin’s stability.” The most powerful man in Russia appeared not to view the rioting fans, the Kavkaztsy, or organized crime as a dire threat.
Putin also displayed an astonishing lack of understanding of the Muslim threat, urging Russians living in Muslim provinces, as well as “migrants” living in the Russian heartland, to respect local customs. Sounding eerily similar to George “Islam is a religion of peace” Bush, the premier expressed a view that is widespread among certain Russian nationalists: “our country is one of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and some scholars say it is closer to Islam than to Catholicism.” Later Putin told soccer fans that he “would not give ten kopecks for the health of someone who disrespected the Koran” in the North Caucasus.
The Russian elite, as suggested by Putin’s remarks, simply does not see a revived and militant Islam as an existential threat, and many Russians loathe and envy the West (especially the United States) more than they fear Islam. This is an unfortunate truth that has to be factored into the U.S. strategic relationship with Russia. Nevertheless, Chronicles readers may have noticed some parallels, however imperfect, between Russia’s situation and our own. The volatile North Caucasus and Russia’s “migration” problems are mirrored in our own continued tolerance of Islamic immigration and refusal to acknowledge that there is a “failed state” to our south, its “migrants” bringing the violence and disorder of their homeland with them.