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Due West: Russia’s Weak Identity Is the Key to Moscow’s Nationalist Riots

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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Russia’s few liberals are proclaiming that “fascism is at the gates;” the rather disorganized and fragmented nationalists are claiming for the umpteenth time that “our people are finally together as one;” Russia’s government is trying not to say much about it at all.

Russia’s few liberals are proclaiming that “fascism is at the gates;” the rather disorganized and fragmented nationalists are claiming for the umpteenth time that “our people are finally together as one;” Russia’s government is trying not to say much about it at all.

“It” is the riots in Biryulyovo, Moscow’s southern dormitory district, notorious for its bad environmental record, the poverty of its inhabitants and high numbers of illegal migrants working in the “grey” – if not completely “black” – sector of the economy.

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
Konstantin von Eggert

Biryulyovo has a large wholesale vegetable storage facility. It is rumored to be controlled by a Dagestani crime syndicate and serve as a money laundering operation. Along with a local shopping mall, it became the target of attacks by hundreds of locals, mostly ethnic Russians, at the weekend. They were protesting the murder of a local youth – 25-year-old Yegor Shcherbakov – committed, police say, by a man from Azerbaijan, who knifed Shcherbakov after a quarrel.

“Kick out the blacks!” (“blacks” being a common derogatory label in Russian for anyone from Central Asia or Russia’s Caucasus region, i.e., of non-Slavic appearance), “Russia for the Russians! Moscow for the Muscovites” and other nationalist slogans were chanted, cars overturned, non-Russian shopkeepers and sales managers beaten. When police arrived at the scene of the riots, they faced violent resistance from the crowd. The demonstrators even managed to wrestle back from police some of those whom law enforcement officers wanted to arrest.

The most conspicuous feature of these events is the silence of President Vladimir Putin and the timid behavior of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Putin’s protégé who was last month elected to the position to which he had previously been appointed. Sobyanin did not arrive at the scene of the riots, and did not attempt to talk to the citizens who elected him. Later he explained that he did not want to "get in the way of the policemen, who did a very good job" of dispersing rioters – a weak explanation, if it can be considered one at all. All the talking is being done by Interior Ministry officials, as if what happened was just a bar brawl and not a manifestation of far more serious political problems that Russia faces.

Alfred Koch, a former official in the Boris Yeltsin government in the 1990s and now a political commentator and publisher, described what happened as “an uprising of the 20-something underclass.” These people, Koch suggests, are proud to be Russians, but they despise the corrupt state that never did anything good, in their eyes, except send their older brothers to two wars in Chechnya. In contrast to the older generation, with its instinctive fear of the system instilled by the Soviet state, today’s youth is not afraid to express its anger, usually in an abrasive, cruel and violent manner.

It is easy to understand why Putin is silent. On the one hand, he cannot support the rioters, as it would undermine his image as a guarantor of stability and interethnic peace, a role he bestowed on himself after the Chechen wars. On the other hand, he cannot condemn what happened either, as most of his support base likes the “Go, Russia” nationalist rhetoric that he himself introduced into public discourse at the beginning of his political career 14 years ago. These “Putin’s Russians” have no time for political correctness and hate the “blacks,” be they poor migrants from Kyrgyzstan or businessmen from Chechnya and Dagestan. The latter, despite being full-fledged Russian citizens, are treated not even as foreigners but, I’d say, as aliens by the vast majority of Russians.

At the core of this problem are three issues. Two of them could in theory be fixed by a willing government. A third is unsolvable in a short period of time.

Firstly, the Biryulyovo riots proved that there is little trust among the population in a corrupt and weak Russian state. If citizens believed that the police would catch criminals rather than accept bribes to let them off the hook, there would be far fewer reasons for discontent.

Secondly, Putin stopped the Chechen war about 10 years ago by essentially bribing part of the local clans into accepting Moscow’s sovereignty in exchange for de facto confederate status within the Russian Federation. Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan are the largest recipients of federal money subsidies of all the Russian regions, with their budgets subsidized by the central government to the tune of more than 80 percent. This feeds into increased corruption, both locally and in Moscow, isolates these two large chunks of the North Caucasus from the rest of Russia and breeds hatred for Chechens and Dagestanis among the population. This, in turn, fans the flames of the burning issue of external migration from Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

The third reason is much more complicated. It is the weak identity of modern Russians. Russia was the nation that glued the empire together. Now there is no empire to hold together, and a modern state to build. In these circumstances, smaller ethnicities have more pronounced identities than large nations that were trained to expand, rule and defend. Their thinking was further disfigured by the Soviet brutality, elimination of religion and private property, and Communist genocide. Hence the people who constitute 70 percent of the Russian population feel defensive and weak. This will only pass with generations, who will, hopefully, get used to free choice and responsibility as the two mainstays of existence.

It would help, however, if the nation’s elite started thinking not in terms of self-enrichment, but in terms of public good.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin von Eggert is a freelance commentator and consultant. In 2010-2013 he worked for Kommersant FM radio in Moscow as a commentator and as Editor-in-Chief. He was Diplomatic Correspondent for Izvestia in the 1990s and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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