The ethnic riots in Stavropol
By Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh, special to Prague Watchdog
Russia has recently witnessed several major outbreaks of ethnic violence, mostly between ethnic Russians and Chechens. Of most importance here are two events, in Kondopoga (September 2006) and recently in Stavropol (May-early June 2007), which indicate a serious ethnic and, implicitly, social tension in Russia, recent improvements notwithstanding.
The presence of tension is also indirectly indicated by Putin’s extreme reluctance to discuss revolutions, even those in the past, such as the February and October (Bolshevik) Revolutions of 1917, which took place exactly 90 years ago. While there are some structural similarities between the revolutions of the past and the present tension, they are separated by one clear difference. Today, much more so than in the past, the social conflicts are sublimated in ethnic conflicts.
It is this fear and dislike of people from the Caucasus, especially Chechens, that has contributed enormously to the general xenophobic thrust of Russian society. One of my old friends from Moscow says that hatred of people of Caucasian nationality and of Jews has spread. And, indeed, this ethnic animosity has replaced the sense of social hatred that was so strong at the time of the Russian revolutions of 1905-1921; to be precise, the social animosity has been sublimated in ethnic animosity.
My conversation with a young Russian woman on one of my recent trips to Russia could illustrate this point. While travelling, we observed through the train window the nearby villages; and she commented on the houses we passed, saying that some are good and some are bad. In order to check her sense of social animosity, I replied, “Capitalist landlord and poor peasants.” She snapped angrily, “I don't like to divide people along social lines.”
The statement of my casual interlocutor should , of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. It simply means that social divisions have been transformed in the minds of many Russians into ethnic divisions while minorities - including Chechens but not only Chechens - are affiliated with the elite, whereas Russians are implicitly seen as the representatives of the lower class.
The involvement in crime of Chechens and other people from the Caucasus is seen in a sort of twisted way as an additional manifestation of oppression/harassment of ethnic Russians by those minorities and the government/elite on their side. It is not surprising that this feeling of animosity is spreading not just against the “people of Caucasian nationality” but also against the government.
A government of the minorities
The sense that the regime is not on the side of the masses was certainly the feeling of the Russian populace during the momentous events of 1917 that toppled the tsarist regime and, later, the provisional government. In the view of the masses, the regime had represented the “lords” (gospod), which included not just the rich capitalists and landlords but the broad segment of the Russian middle class, which, in the minds of the populace, actually included anyone who was neatly dressed and literate.
The situation is different in present-day Russia, where average Russians see the government as being foreign to them because - in their view - it represents the minorities. It is asserted in this context that the current regime is not Russian; and this sort of view has even been able to reach a national audience, despite the heavy censorship of the mass media.
In a radio discussion during the summer of 2006, Markov, the well-known nationalist-minded commentator, praised the achievements of Putin’s regime for doing a lot for the Russian state, and implicitly for ethnic Russians. Elaborating on Putin’s achievements, Markov said that Putin ended the “Time of Trouble” and strengthened the Russian state, limiting the power of oligarchs, even though they still exist.
While strengthening the Russian state, Putin also prevented the West from taking command of the Russian economy. Europeans wanted to take over Gazprom, but Putin stopped this dangerous encroachment, and Gazprom is fully in the hands of the Russian state.
Putin also increased Russia’s prestige among the people outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Under Putin, Russia once again became a reliable ally. Putin would not betray Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Transdnestrian Republic. Putin’s achievement in pacification of the Caucasus was also praised. Markov asserted that Dagestan and Chechnya are a part of Russia; and he implied that Chechnya and Dagestan were actually pacified.
In short, Putin is a leader who has thought about the state and, implicitly, about ethnic Russians. Still, some of his nationalist-minded listeners were not convinced and called in, stating on the air that the present-day Russian regime is not Russian. Rather, it caters to the interests of minorities, including Chechens, but not to ethnic Russians; and it was this feeling, the spread of which as the author of this piece became aware in the summer of 2006, was a catalyst for the pogroms of September 2006 in Kondopoga and recently in Stavropol.
The Stavropol riots
One of the essential aspects of the post-Soviet period is the sharp and increasing polarization along regional lines, and especially between the big cities and the capital and the rest of the country.
It is true that this difference had been present in the Soviet era. Still, the end of the Soviet regime has led to a sharp increase in polarization and is apparently increasing at present. While the big cities, especially Moscow, are booming, the provinces, especially the smaller cities, are in much worse shape. The difference here is so great that for some provincials, Moscow actually has become a “foreign country,” while the imperial capital gorges on the rest of the country.
The employment opportunities in the many provincial cities are quite limited; enterprises that provided employment in the Soviet era were closed and did not reopen even after the beginning of the recent improvement of the Russian economy. In addition, the collapse of professional educators, e.g. PTU, the professional schools that trained skilled laborers, has created additional problems.
All of this goes along with the decline, or in some cases, complete collapse, of the Soviet-type social protection net, which was interwoven with the strongly repressive and controlling aspect of the regime. The new generation that matured in post-Soviet Russia not only does not have the secure and controlling environment of the Soviet era but also has no illusions about the market economy as it was in the late 1980s-early 1990s.
And unlike the older generation, it has no personal memory, and thus no fear, of the terrible power of the state. They are also different from the nationalists of the Yeltsin era who, while extremely critical of the regime, were quite sheepish in their concrete actions; these new radical youngsters have little respect for authorities and are ready for violence. All of this explains that while nationalistic and quasi-social animus has spread all over the country, it is the provincial Kondopoga and recently Stavropol that have become the hotbed of violence.
In late May and early June, Stavropol, a city in the south of European Russia near the border of Chechnya, was marked by large-scale ethnic rioting. It was the worst - or at any rate one of the worst - riots of this kind since Kondopoga. The event indicated the continued high level of ethnic, social, and, in a way, regional tension.
As in the case of Kondopoga, the riot erupted with a brawl between a group of Russians and what Russians usually call “people of Caucasian nationality,” mostly Chechens. Both groups had called for reinforcements; and soon enough the brawl was transformed into a virtual battle with up to 300-400 people involved. The police seemed to be watching with a sort of indifference. Still, when the rioters attacked the police, the riot police arrived and engaged with the crowd. As a result, dozens of people were seriously injured, and one Chechen was killed.
A few days later, two Russian boys were killed; allegedly their throats were slit. The crime was attributed to Chechens, and several hundred people rallied on one of the squares and put forward a variety of demands, from protection from ethnic violence to an end to corruption. They also demanded - as in the case of Kondopoga - the creation of grassroots detachments, the “druzhina”, to maintain order.
According to some reports, some of those who participated in the rally later engaged in acts of vandalism. Still, the authorities were able to stop the violence from the development into a wide scale pogrom. While this aspect of the event was reflected in the press, one of the essential aspects was ignored. This was the ideology of the participants in the event, particularly their vision of their enemies.
Interestingly enough, those Russians who participated in the events did not regard all minorities as enemies, at least judging by their Internet conversations. They had rather positive views of Armenians and Greeks; even negative views of Jews were mentioned only in passing. The focus was the Chechens, who are seen as the embodiment of all evil and should be deported or simply eliminated.
Next to Chechens, state authorities, especially those in Moscow, are especially hated. In the view of the participants, Putin has become a powerless tool in the hands of Kadyrov, and Moscow has ceased to be a Russian city. Not only Moscow elite, but all Moscow as a city live at the expense of other Russians. Their images have blended with the images of Chechens as alien to Russians. The participants of the Internet discussion proclaimed that Russians should respond to this situation.
They should create a purely Russian party, like the National Unity party led by Barkashov in the1990s and, in some way, wage war against Chechens and the Moscow/government alliance. One of the participants of the discussion proposed measures such as the blowing up of train tracks or pipelines. Other participants suggested that firearms should be acquired for future struggle.
Despite what seems to be a booming Russian economy, a considerable part of the Russian population, especially those in the provinces, is not affected by the improvement. At the same time, the new generation of youth supports the push for violence. The social animus has translated into ethnic animosity and the feeling that the Russian government does not care about ethnic Russians. All of this recently led to ethnic riots, Stavropol being one of the most recent examples.
The implications of these events are hard to assess, and it is of course also difficult to make accurate predictions about the future. Still, they indicate the continuous instability in post-Soviet society and may possibly be the harbinger of things to come, especially in the case of a rapid decline in oil prices and oil revenues for Russia.
And there are other immediate repercussions. This general hostility of ethnic Russians to “people of Caucasian nationality,” especially Chechens, has stimulated the continuous violence and terrorist activities in the Caucasus, including Chechnya. These acts of violence have created a strong fear of terrorism in Russian society, amplified by the fact that the fear of real or imaginary terror has often in reality been a kind of sublimation of many other fears. And in this the Russians, of course, are not alone.
Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend, USA, and a regular contributor to Prague Watchdog.
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