Russian race riot: Why did police detain hundreds who had nothing to do with it?

Sunday's riot in Moscow, sparked by a fight between a Russian man and a migrant man, underscored festering racial tensions – and officials' apparent unwillingness to counteract them.

Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters
Men look at an overturned car and smashed watermelon stand after a protest in the Biryulyovo district of Moscow on Sunday. Demonstrators, some chanting racist slogans, vandalized shops and other sites known for employing migrant workers in the southern Biryulyovo area after the killing of a young ethnic Russian widely blamed on a man from the Caucasus.

In the cell phone videos circulating online, rampaging crowds can be heard chanting "Russia for the Russians!” People throw bottles and rocks at police, set fires, overturn cars, smash a shopping center, and ransack the vegetable warehouse in a gritty industrial district of the Russian capital.

It was one of the worst riots to hit Moscow in years, and police on Tuesday continued rounding up hundreds of people, two days after the incident. Except the overwhelming majority of those being detained weren’t those who rioted. They were the targets of the rioters’ anger.

Sunday’s race riot, which trashed parts of the working-class neighborhood, was reportedly instigated by nationalist groups seeking revenge for the stabbing of an ethnic Russian man by an ethnic Azeri man.

The incident highlights what a growing number of expert say is the most dangerous threat to stability faced by Russian society under President Vladimir Putin: not the Kremlin's chosen enemies – liberals, gays, human rights activists, and foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations – but groups lodged deep within President Vladimir Putin's own political base, including nationalists who are increasingly disgruntled with what they see as out-of-control illegal immigration.

"There is an explosive situation developing with inter-ethnic relations in Moscow and anything could happen at any moment," says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous TV journalist who is also affiliated with the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-backed assembly of civil society groups.

The unrest began Sunday evening in Biryulyovo, on the city’s southern outskirts, when thousands of people poured into the streets on news that an ethnic Russian man had been stabbed to death by a “migrant,” the expression Russians use for an undocumented worker coming from former Soviet Central Asia or the Caucasus region, which includes places like Chechnya, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. 

Police arrested 380 people during the rioting, and on Tuesday announced that 70 of them will face misdemeanor charges; at least two will be charged with hooliganism, which could entail prison time.

Investigators say they have identified a prime suspect in the stabbing, an Azerbaijani national identified by security camera footage. On Tuesday, police continued rounding up dark-skinned "migrants" around Moscow, saying about 1,200 had been detained, many apparently for alleged immigration violations or other infractions unconnected to the weekend stabbing.

The mass arrests of migrants who had nothing to do with the murder or the riots, experts say, is a largely symbolic action that speaks volumes about the mindset of Russian authorities.

The economic boom of the past decade has turned Moscow into a city of glittering skyscrapers, billionaire residences, luxury automobiles, and opulent shopping. It has also brought millions of darker-skinned and mainly Muslim migrant laborers from Central Asia and Russia's south to take construction and service jobs in large centers, particularly Moscow.

Social violence has occurred in several Russian cities and towns in recent months; three years ago, nationalist groups and soccer hooligans clashed with police in central Moscow, protesting what they said was police ineptitude in the death of a Russian man killed in a fight with Caucasus migrants. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to crackdown on such violence.

"The big protests we saw in 2010 attracted a lot of notice, and there was a lot of talk about fixing the problems, but due to the very short timeline our politicians work with, nothing was done," says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Mr. Petrov says by not doing things like raising wages and improving conditions for public sector jobs to encourage Russians to take such jobs, officials are effectively encouraging migrant laborers to take low-wage jobs.

“They protect the employers, but play on the prejudices of the public, blaming illegal immigrants for all ills in their rhetoric. Even Putin toyed with these themes during his presidential election campaign," Mr. Petrov says. “Is it any surprise that less sophisticated people pick up these ideas, and are activated by them?”

The detentions of migrants, he adds, are an empty show of force. "It's theater, to distract the public from the real problems. The way to deal with illegal immigration would, of course, be to go after those who are using this labor. But this is an extremely profitable business for Moscow's bosses, and it's lubricated by mass corruption.”

Another illustration of the double standards often practiced by Russian authorities can be seen in the relatively lenient treatment meted out to the nationalist-minded rioters, who mostly received light fines even though they allegedly clashed violently with police.

By contrast, about two dozen liberal protesters are currently facing trial for causing "mass disorders" at a mostly peaceful rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration last year, during which they allegedly threw bottles and paving stones at riot police. Some could get them up to 13 years in prison.

Another example is the harsh two-year prison sentences handed out to two women from the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who staged an undeniably blasphemous performance in an empty church that caused no damage. The women were charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," which carries a far stiffer prison sentence than the simple hooliganism charge that may be handed to a few Biryulyovo rioters – even though videos show many of them chanting racist slogans.

"The thing is, our authorities perceive these [nationalist] rioters as basically good fellows who may have gotten a bit aggressive and have to be brought under control. But they'll come to their senses after they've let off a bit of steam," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “They're the sort of people who normally support the authorities, so why be hard on them?”

Meanwhile, nothing is likely to be done either to educate the public, institute tough penalties for racist acts, or address the growing social inequality that's spreading across Russia's urban landscape, experts say.

"The root cause here is social injustice; some people have everything, are permitted everything, and others have nothing,” says Mr. Svanidze, the TV journalist. “The authorities aggravate the situation by stirring up hatred toward liberals, the West, gays, and other enemies. The effect is to get people worked up, make them feel irritated and aggressive.

“Nationalist groups, who are multiplying in our midst, focus that anger on an easily identifiable target: migrants," he says.

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