The rise of the democratic opposition to the Putin regime is being shadowed by the appearance of a more ominous type of opposition, that of extreme nationalists.
At the first protest against falsified elections in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on December 10, 2011, the crowd was made up of representatives of the urban middle class. On December 24 and on February 4, 2012, at the protests in Sakharov Square, however, members of extreme nationalist groups appeared. They provoked fights and, in many cases, arriving late, forced their way toward the stage in order to be seen. According to Alexander Verkhovsky of the Sova Analytical Center, which monitors nationalist extremists, “they behaved as if they were confident that they will be the ones that will be coming to power.”
In the Putin era, the largest demonstrations in Russia were by nationalists, not democrats. On November 4, 2011, the nationalists’ “Russian March” attracted 6,000 persons. Until discontent in Russia was ignited by the blatantly falsified December parliamentary elections, the crowds mustered by democrats did not even approach this figure.
Nationalist positions also enjoy the sympathy of the majority of the population. According to the Levada polling organization, the slogan “Russia for Russians,” with its explicit endorsement of discrimination, is supported by 55 percent of the population. At the same time, 52 percent of the population believes that the nationalists are gaining strength and according to an October, 2011 survey by the Moscow mayor’s office, 35 percent of the inhabitants of the Russian capital support the nationalists to some degree.
The rise of nationalism in Russia, in turn, is not an accident. It is directly related to Putin’s accession to power. The support for nationalist slogans rose sharply after he took office and has remained high for almost the entire period of his leadership.
Putin was elected president as a result of the second Chechen war which began in 1999 just as he was preparing to run, with Yeltsin’s endorsement, for the highest office. The second invasion of Chechnya was made possible politically because four apartment blocks were blown up in Russia in August and September in attacks that were blamed on the Chechens. In fact, a fifth bomb was discovered in a building in Ryazan and the persons who placed it were arrested and turned out to be not Chechens but agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB). But this had little influence on the evolution of attitudes. Putin promised “to destroy the terrorists in their outhouses” and pursued a ruthless war of extermination in Chechnya which galvanized support for Putin while channeling aggression toward an enemy that happened to be Caucasian. The result was quickly registered as extreme nationalist and fascist youths began attacking non-Russians on the streets of Russian cities.
According to the Sova Center, racist attacks in Russia in 2004 resulted in 46 deaths and 208 injuries in Russia and the numbers began steadily to climb until 2008 when there were 109 murders and 486 injuries. Faced with a reign of terror by skinheads and extreme nationalists against Caucasians, migrant workers from Central Asia and students from Asia and Africa, the authorities did little or nothing. Each attack was treated as a case of “hooliganism” with the racial motives ignored.
Emblematic of the situation was the case of Khursheda Sultanova, a 9 year old Tajik girl, who was killed in 2004 on the street in St. Petersburg as a result of an attack by skinheads on her, her father, a migrant worker, and her 11 year old cousin. Khursheda was stabbed during the attack and she bled to death before medical help arrived. Nine persons were arrested but no one was seriously punished. Eight attackers were found guilty of hooliganism and received light sentences and the one person accused of murder was acquitted despite the fact that he had earlier confessed to the crime.
The result of this and other cases was to convince a generation of fascist inclined nationalists that they would never be punished. In December, 2008, ultra-nationalists posted a three minute clip on the internet showing the execution, to the accompaniment of a heavy metal soundtrack, of two men, one a Tajik, the other a Dagestani. The Tajik, who may have already been dead, had his head cut off with what appeared to be a Russian army knife. A photograph of the victim’s detached head was sent to two human rights organizations. In the same year, a far right web site published a list of Russian human rights activists with their passport details, home addresses, telephone numbers and other personal data under the listing, “enemies of the Russian people.”
By 2008, there were an estimated 30,000 aggressive and fascist leaning nationalists in the five or six largest Russian cities. As their numbers and violence grew, the police remained indifferent to their crimes, particularly the killing of non-Russians. There began, however, to be signs that the nationalists and the ethnic violence they helped to inspire were in danger of becoming a threat to the regime itself.
The first indication of potential trouble for the authorities as a result of increasing ethnic tensions was in 2006 in Kondopoga, a town of 35,000 in Karelia, the Russian region that borders Finland. A restaurant brawl ended with the killing of two ethnic Russians by members of a Chechen gang that was guarding the restaurant. In response, residents of the city took to the streets, burning down the restaurant and stores owned by Caucasians. The enraged crowd took over the city and for two days, the local authorities were powerless. Dozens of Chechen families fled the city in fear of their lives. Meanwhile, Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro Kremlin leader of Chechnya, blamed the authorities for failing to stop the riots and vowed to restore order himself, if necessary.
At roughly the same time, 13 persons were killed and 47 injured when a bomb exploded in Moscow’s Cherkizovsky Market where many of the traders are from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In fact, many of the victims were not migrants but residents of Moscow who shopped in the market. Eight members of the national group, “The Saviour,” were eventually arrested for their roles in the crime.
In response to these events, the police belatedly began to act against nationalist extremists. They carried out mass arrests and as a result, the number of violent acts sharply declined until in 2011 there were “only” 20 murders and 130 injuries. The nationalists, however, have also changed their focus and many of the fascists are now saying in their web sites that it is not enough to attack Tajiks. The time has come to attack the system.
On March 5, at the rally in Pushkin Square protesting the election of Putin, there were representatives of the Russian Civil Union (RGS), the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the associations, “Russians.” Small groups of ultra-right activists also undertook attempts to carry out marches separately, in the course of one of which a reporter for the radio station “Ekho Moskvy” was attacked and beaten.
In keeping with the regime’s decision to liberalize the rules for registering political parties, nationalists are also beginning to organize their own parties. In some cases, the parties are organized by more moderate nationalists although they also call for discrimination against non-Russians.
At the same time, members of the democratic opposition are becoming aware of the danger that Russian nationalism in either its extreme or moderate emanations may present for their aspirations. After initially allowing nationalists to speak at their rallies, they refused permission on March 10. A column of ultra-rightists left the meeting and organized a separate march with racist slogans near the Kievskaya metro station.
As political activism returns to Russia, the democrats are preparing to fight for the restoration of human rights and democracy. But they are at a disadvantage in competing with nationalists who can draw on the pent up anger over corruption that many Russians attribute to “democracy.” Under these circumstances, it will be the far from simple task of the democrats to direct a people’s justifiable anger with a corrupt and repressive regime toward the rule of law and away from ethnic conflict and claims of national superiority.