From protests to pogroms


As the level of inter-ethnic violence reaches disturbing proportions, Emil Pain asks if Russia’s protest moment has turned nasty. 


Emil Pain
27 August 2013

In the middle of 2012, Russia’s influential Centre for Strategic Research (CSR)  described the country’s situation as a political crisis, with the regime ‘having lost the trust of the public’. A year later, in July 2013, it published a report entitled ‘Is a new electoral balance possible in Russia?’, reversing its previous expert assessment.

In the middle of 2012, Russia’s influential Centre for Strategic Research (CSR)  described the country’s situation as a political crisis, with the regime ‘having lost the trust of the public’. A year later, in July 2013, it published a report entitled ‘Is a new electoral balance possible in Russia?’, reversing its previous expert assessment. ‘In the year since the Bolotnaya Square events of 6th May 2012’, reads the report, ‘the regime has managed to “pacify” the population’. The paper’s authors chronicle the steep decline of protest in Moscow; and what they consider to be unexpected and inexplicable rise of protest in the form of ethnic unrest in Russia’s peripheral regions. They begin with an unusual statement: ‘in contrast with our typical practice, we will not attempt to give a rational interpretation of this development’. 

The changes are certainly impossible to ignore. In 2006, for example, there was only example of interethnic conflict in Russia outside the northern Caucasus region — this was between ethnic Chechens and Slavs in the small Karelian town of Kondopoga. By contrast, in July 2013 alone there were three major clashes, each lasting several days and resulting in fatalities (in Tatarstan, Saratov and Yekaterinburg regions). The same month also saw wide media coverage of a confrontation between Caucasians and the police at Moscow’s Matveyev Market; a rally demanding the expulsion of Caucasian nationals in the village of Vyoshnskaya, in the Rostov region; and dozens of smaller incidents between ethnic Russians and Caucasians all over Russia. 

In every case, the confrontations and demonstrations were initiated by ethnic Russians, arousing a growing sense of grievance in the people and regional authorities of the northern Caucasus republics. On 24th July, for example, several hundred local residents attacked Chechen children and coaches attending a sports camp in a village in the Krasnodar region on Russia’s Black Sea Coast. The attack sparked protest demonstrations in Chechnya, with people shouting, ‘This is real terrorism and banditry!’ (such accusations are more often levelled at Chechen insurgents). The Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov expressed ‘serious concern’ about the incident, and the republic’s human rights Ombudsman sent several letters of complaint to the Prosecutor General. 

In 2006,  there was only example of interethnic conflict in Russia outside the northern Caucasus ... in July 2013 alone there were three major clashes, each lasting several days and resulting in fatalities.

All these confrontations are in fact only a small element in the increasingly serious matter of ethnic disharmony in Russia. In March 2013 Russia’s Prosecutor, General Yuri Chaika, reported a genuinely shocking statistic: between 2004 and 2012 the number of crimes committed in Russia linked to political extremism increased fivefold, and the most common were cases of ‘incitement to ethnic hatred’. What was particularly remarkable was a steep rise in these crimes in the most unexpected regions – in the Siberian Federal District, for example, a traditionally relatively quiet area, there was an increase of 84%. All the experts agree that it is no longer possible to predict where conflict will break out next. 

So what’s so inexplicable?

Unlike the authors of the CSR report, however, I find nothing inexplicable or unexpected in all this. All that has happened is that the cumulative mass discontent expressed in political protest a year ago has now taken an ethnic turn. And this was perfectly predictable: before the winter of 2011-12 all protest movements, even those that began with criticism of the regime or Russia’s culture of corruption, quickly degenerated into ethnic or religious confrontations. When the political rallies stopped, protest resumed its previous course. And it was a popular course — not only because it provides a simple answer to every problem, i.e. ‘it’s all the foreigners’ fault’, but also an apparently simple solution: ‘throw them all out and don’t let any more in!’ For many, the slogans are much more satisfying to yell than the opposition’s rallying cries, which were obscure and generally unrealistic. The simplicity of today’s public demands also has its attraction for the regime: ‘throw out’ and ‘don’t let in’ are concepts close to the Russian apparatchik’s heart — much sweeter to their ears than words like ‘modernisation’ or ‘reform’. 

‘Throw out’ and ‘don’t let in’ are concepts close to the Russian apparatchik’s heart — much sweeter to their ears than words like ‘modernisation’ or ‘reform’. 

A number of social and psychological factors lie behind this spread of xenophobia. For example, people who are dissatisfied with their own social status and prospects tend to assert themselves by trying to demean others even further down the social ladder. In some places there is a hierarchy of the humiliated – a homeless Muscovite hanging out at the capital’s Kazan Station asserts his superiority by calling newcomers from the Caucasus ‘chinks’; a Tadzhik migrant worker will yell, ‘Go back where you came from!’ at a Vietnamese one. There have also been confrontations in Chechnya between Chechens and Tadzhik migrants, and in central Russia Chechens and members of other northern Caucasus ethnicities are more likely to encounter xenophobia than people such as Tadzhiks, from Central Asia. Our culture is a pre-civil one, ready to give credence to any old stereotype, and in cultures like ours even political disagreements often take on the form of religious or ethnic conflicts, as has happened in Egypt this summer. 


Police and illegal migrants at a temporary camp in Golyanovo, Outer Moscow. The topic of migration has become intensely politicised — and utilised by most candidated — over the course of the Moscow Mayoral Election. Picture: (c) RIA Novosti / Andrei Stenin

Unthinking mass stereotypes can spread like wildfire, but no matter how important socio-psychological factors may be, the main driver of this spiralling xenophobia is politics. We have only to remember the rapid growth of anti-Ukrainian feeling in Russia at the time of the dispute over ownership of the Tuzla Spit in 2003, or the outbreak of anti-Georgian feeling during the South Ossetia crisis in 2008. The problem is that in countries, such as Russia, with an authoritarian ‘power vertical’, the influence of government rhetoric is far greater than that of the media, popular TV presenters or well-known national figures. So anxiety levels are also higher, since any mistake by government has an immediate effect on the social climate. 

A mayor for the anti-migrants?

The forthcoming mayoral election in Moscow has fanned the flames of migrant phobia and badly damaged interethnic relations. Most of the mayoral candidates have spoken about the problem of migration – only Sergei Mitrokhin has so far avoided incendiary anti-migrant rhetoric (although he has mentioned illegal immigration more than usual). But looking at the others: Liberal Democrat Nikolai Dyegtaryov has sworn to rid Moscow’s markets of migrant traders within eighteen months; Nikolai Levichev of ‘Just Russia’ has called on the Moscow Police to clamp down on ethnic minority crime, and the Communist Party candidate Ivan Melnikov is promising extra rights and privileges to ‘native’ Muscovites. I’m especially intrigued by that last one: does it mean that Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, born in a provincial backwater, will have restricted residence rights, or even be forced out of the capital and back to his village? 

No matter how important socio-psychological factors may be, the main driver of this spiralling xenophobia is politics.

As expected, leading opposition candidate Aleksei Navalny also joined the xenophobic chorus. Navalny is certainly well known for his nationalistic instincts, and he has been using anti-migrant rhetoric in meetings with voters. At the same time, nothing particularly shocking has made it into the press; indeed, it has been reported that real nationalists are unhappy with his campaign speeches and the more moderate image he is projecting. My students and I, analysing Navalny’s public pronouncements, have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that over the last year he has significantly toned down the nationalist tub thumping. Of 1347 speeches made by him in the last three years, only 40 were devoted to ethno-political issues, and 90% of those were concerned with the situation in the north Caucasus itself, and critical not of the local communities but of the regional authorities. 

There only remains the acting and former incumbent mayor Sergei Sobyanin, the most actively xenophobic candidate of the present campaign. On 13th June, at its very start, he was already referring to migrants as ‘the city’s major problem’; the next day he stated that Moscow’s housing and utility sector had no need of migrant labour; and by 20th June even the nationalists were sick of his anti-migrant remarks. Dmitry Demushkin, a spokesperson for the ultra-right ‘Russkiye’ [‘Russians’] organization, made this cry from the heart, ‘Immigrants and Sobyanin – that’s all I’ve heard about for the last month. They’ve even stolen some of our policies and presented them as their own…’

Damn lies and statistics

The regime is not only stooping to the level of popular stereotypes, it is also creating them. According to Levada Center polls, in July 2013, for the first time since polling began, migrants were identified by Muscovites as the main problem facing their city. Back in February they were more worried about traffic jams (54%), the high cost of basic essentials (48%) and rising housing and utility prices (44%); these three problems, in one order or another, had topped surveys since 2009. So what happened between February and July? Prices, rents and congestion went on increasing as usual, but there was no mass influx of migrants into the capital. Why did this problem suddenly trump the others? 

One relevant factor might be the fact that in March Moscow’s public prosecutor Sergei Kudeneev stated that over the previous five years the number of offences committed by migrant workers had halved, and now accounted for only 20% of all crimes. In August, however, he announced that in the last six months 40% of crimes in Moscow had been committed by foreign nationals, and another 10% by other non-Muscovites. So what had happened in those six months to account for this extreme variation in then statistics?    

I have spent quite a long time studying so-called ‘ethnic crime’ and my firm conclusion is that ethnic minorities also account for a minority of crimes. The prosecutor’s figures for March are much closer to those of independent experts than those for August, which in fact appeared out of the blue, and just after the acting mayor had also made a statement claiming that ‘If you disregard crimes committed by non-residents, Moscow is the most law-abiding city in the world’. The only event of the summer that could explain the fluidity of the statistics and consequent wind up of public opinion is the mayoral election campaign. 

In Russian politics-speak the term ‘migrant’ is a code word for certain communities. Under Stalin, the ‘internationalist’ regime’s de facto anti-Semitism required some word to designate Jews: enter the term ‘Cosmopolitans’. Today there are new enemies and new terms for them.

Even before the election campaign, Moscow was in fact more migrant-phobic than other parts of Russia. A study carried out by ROMIR in May this year for the international academic research project ‘Nationbuilding and Nationalism in Russia Today’ revealed that 95% of Muscovites believed that ‘ethnic Russians should have a leading role in the Russian state’, whereas the figure across the country was 85%. And while not quite 60% of Russians in general supported the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’, 70% of Muscovites did. 

In Russian politics-speak the term ‘migrant’ is a code word for anyone from certain ethnic and regional communities. It’s a tradition that goes back to Soviet times. Under Stalin, the USSR’s ostensible internationalism meant that certain communities couldn’t be openly referred to as enemies, but the regime’s de facto anti-Semitism required some word that would designate Jews. Enter the term ‘Cosmopolitans’, and when so-called ‘cosmopolitan doctors’, for example, were executed or imprisoned, everyone knew who they meant. Today there are new enemies and new terms for them. In Moscow no one calls someone from St Petersburg, Oryol or Tyumen a ‘migrant’, nor Tatars or Bashkiris from their republics; no one is demanding restrictions on people from Belarus or Ukraine entering Russia. The term is reserved for ‘southerners’, who may well be Russian citizens coming to Moscow from the country’s southern regions who have the same legal rights as someone from St Petersburg or Rostov. 

The anti-migrant mood of the mayoral election campaign effectively legalises xenophobia and is an incitement to ethnic hatred. But the trouble with xenophobia is that it’s impossible to confine it just to certain ethnic groups – it inevitably seeps out in all directions. So after a Chechen teenage stabbed a local resident in the small town of Pugachev, a journalist in Perm then demanded that the town’s synagogue be closed down as well (this after calling for migrants from the Caucasus to be burned in their own homes). And the case of teacher Ilya Farber shows that anti-Semitism is once more alive and well in Russia’s governmental organs. Caucasians, Central Asians, Jews, Vietnamese – who will be next?

Xenophobia – or just politics? 

The ‘migrant problem’ is a euphemism that masks another issue: dishonest and ineffective regional politics. Data from Russia’s Audit Office reveal an incredible level of embezzlement of federal subsidies by corrupt northern Caucasus governments. This is cash taken from taxpayers’ pockets and its disproportionate allocation and misappropriation has a direct effect on Muscovites, but only two mayoral candidates have mentioned the problem, both expressing very similar sentiments. Sergei Mitrokhin has called this policy ‘Moscow’s contribution to Kadyrov’s Chechnya’, and Aleksei Navalny is well known for his ‘Time to Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ slogan. The important thing is that the ‘feeding’ has fostered the appearance of a particular social type, bloated nouveau riches who flaunt their contempt for laws and moral values. And we’re not talking just about the ruling elite, but their entourages as well – the Dagestani bodyguards, for example, who beat up an MP just because he wouldn’t let them overtake him. Obviously, any normal person is going to be outraged by such behavior – and this is reasonable and has nothing to do with xenophobia. What turns it into xenophobia is when all members of an ethnic or religious community are tarred with the same brush. 

But if we move from everyday xenophobia to politicians’ behaviour, here in Russia we have something that could be described as ‘political schizophrenia’ – a serious case of split consciousness. For example, the Foreign Affairs Ministry is attempting, in the name of the government, to reunite the Central Asian republics with Mother Russia; and at the same time Sergei Sobyanin, a prominent member of the ruling Politburo, is calling for the introduction of visas for citizens of these republics wishing to visit the Russian Federation. The people suffering most from this doublethink are the republics themselves, with high unemployment rates and low GDP compared to other parts of Russia. The Russian government would obviously like to avoid another Kondopoga or Pugachev, however, given its bad relations with many social groups, its resources for rallying public opinion are limited. And so, forced to seek support only from its most conformist elements, it has appropriated the slogan ‘down with the people swamping our country!’, which was a central feature of these incidents. 

In July Doku Umarov, leader of the north Caucasus Islamist insurgents lifted his moratorium on attacks on civilian targets in Russia.

So the law of conservation of energy is at work: the mood of protest in Russia hasn’t gone away; it’s just changed its form and turned into ethnically based unrest. The danger of a new wave of terrorism has also increased. In July Doku Umarov, leader of the north Caucasus Islamist insurgents, declared the need to disrupt the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and lifted his moratorium on acts of terror on Russian territory (in February 2012 he ordered his group to ‘avoid attacks on civilian targets’, given the wave of civil protest against the regime that was taking place there). Now that this civil protest has died out, the moratorium is over and his previous ‘Caucasian Emirate’ strategy — where all Russians are seen as his enemies — is back in place.  

Should we allow artificial intelligence to manage migration?

How is artificial intelligence being used in governing migration? What are the risks and opportunities that the emerging technology raises for both the state and the individual crossing a country’s borders?

Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and openDemocracy have teamed up to host this free live discussion on 15 April at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Ana Beduschi Associate professor of law, University of Exeter

Hilary Evans Cameron Assistant professor, faculty of law, Ryerson University

Patrick McEvenue Senior director, Strategic Policy Branch, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Chair: Lucia Nalbandian Researcher, CERC Migration, Ryerson University

Get oDR emails A weekly roundup of political and social developments in the post-Soviet space. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData