Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is vowing to crack down hard on ultranationalist extremists after weekend riots by soccer fans, egged on by neo-Nazi groups, led to a wave of violence against ethnic minorities in Moscow and other major Russian cities.
"Everything is under control – both in Moscow and the country," Mr. Medvedev wrote on his Twitter page late Sunday. "We will deal with everyone who did filthy things. Everyone. You can be certain of that."
The threat of nationalist backlash against Russia's multitude of non-Slavic minorities has long been a proverbial elephant in the room, and it came roaring into the open on Saturday as some 5,000 soccer fans rallied in a square adjacent to the Kremlin, some shouting racist slogans such as "Russia for the Russians" and making explicit threats against members of Moscow's darker-skinned and mainly-Muslim minority from the North Caucasus region.
Protesters set off fireworks and threw chunks of ice at police on Manege Square. Heavily armored riot police drove the protesters back from the Kremlin, arresting 65 people and injuring more than 30 in what looked at times like a pitched battle. The soccer fans fled into Moscow's metro system, where some reportedly went on a rampage against non-Slavic looking people.
Anger over death of soccer fan
While a few youths appeared to be giving Nazi-style salutes, some observers argued that the demonstrations were less provoked by ultranationalist agitators than by anger over last week's death of soccer enthusiast Yegor Sviridov.
Fans of Moscow's Spartak soccer team blame police for failing to properly investigate the gang-related killing of Mr. Sviridov, who died in a fight with a group of youthful immigrants from the North Caucasus region.
"They are just angry because their comrade was killed, and the suspects were freed by police," says Eduard Sorokin, an expert with Stadion, a Moscow sports consultancy. "One wonders if the authorities aren't deliberately whipping this trouble up to have a pretext to toughen order."
Several hundred soccer fans and friends of Sviridov last week blockaded a downtown Moscow thoroughfare and demanded that police explain why two of the three suspects had been released. This ballooned into the much larger rally on Saturday over authorities' alleged failure to address the fans' questions, and the growing belief that police corruption was blocking justice for Sviridov, says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"The problem is that our political system is inflexible and authorities are incapable of providing any avenues for people to redress their grievances. So they only react when those problems have grown into mass protests," he says.
"In the absence of any other options, the situation was left to snowball. In their frustration the fans took to the streets, where they became wide open to the suggestions of neo-Nazis. It seems that the ultranationalists are much more adept at communicating with soccer fans than the authorities are," Mr. Petrov adds.
Ultranationalists penetrate ranks
Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the independent Sova Center in Moscow, which tracks nationalist groups, says that protesters beat up at least 40 people in the wake of the riot on Saturday. The violence continued throughout the weekend with several more attacks, and the reported murder of an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan on Sunday.
"Nobody talks about this, but the penetration of ultranationalists into the ranks of soccer fans is a growing problem," says Ms. Kozhevnikova. "Not a single soccer match goes by without racist slogans and banners being raised. Yet there has been no effort by the police to single out the nationalist agitators and punish them. Now our officials act as though it's all a big surprise to them."
The riots are an especially acute embarassment for the Kremlin since they erupted just days after Russia was awarded the right to host the 2018 soccer World Cup, which was widely hailed as a sign that Russia is becoming accepted into the European community.