PRAGUE, September 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The recent unrest in Russia's Karelia Republic has been portrayed by pro-Kremlin television networks and mainstream media as a battle between a local criminal gang and an upstart rival.
That line has also been taken by both local and state officials, including the speaker of the State Duma, Chechnya's pro-Moscow prime minister, and the northwestern republic's prosecutor.
Karelia's prosecutor's office has opened 17 criminal cases into the violence that erupted in the city of Kondopoga after a brawl on August 31 between ethnic Chechens and Slavs led to the deaths of two ethnic Russians. Thousands took to the street, targeting businesses owned by people from the Caucasus. Chechen families were evacuated as the violence continued unabated and calls were made for the removal of all residents from the Caucasus.
'No Ethnic Basis'
The office's immediate reaction was to announce that it saw "no ethnic basis for the conflict." Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who entered the public fray almost immediately in defense of Chechens living in Russia, warned that "those who unwittingly play the nationalist card and inflate nationalistic hysteria should realize they put in jeopardy the integrity and sovereignty of the Russian Federation."
But claims that the incidents are purely criminal in nature are difficult to digest for others.
Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin told Channel One television before flying to the region to investigate that regional authorities have their heads in the sand if they believe race was not a factor in the violence.
The president of the predominantly Muslim Republic of Tatarstan, Mintimir Shamiyev, said during an interview with "Argumenty i fakty," No. 36, that the Russian government has failed to give proper attention to such conflicts. He said the courts do not recognize ethnic hatred as the root cause, instead conveniently laying the blame on extremism or hooliganism. He warned that such "hypocrisy and double standards generate anger among the people."
The reason for such skepticism is simple. It is widely accepted that the power structures in Russia are overseen by the "siloviki" oligarchy, but the country also features a corrupt state bureaucracy that in many cases has fused with organized crime. Thus, the idea that the siloviki's role can be separated from anything in which they have an interest is very unlikely.
Safely Under The Roof
It is no secret that small businesses commonly operate under "kryshas" that provide protection via various security and state bodies, including the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB).
This reality of doing is business in Russia is especially true for immigrants working as retailers, in food markets, and in the entertainment and gaming business. Exactly where they come from is irrelevant -- all that matters is that they work within the bureaucracy that is protected by governments and law enforcement.
And that, at least according to some reports, may have been the case in Kondopoga.
Sergei Katanandov, the head of Karelia Republic, told "Izvestia" on September 6 that a "group of immigrants from the Caucasus terrorized the city." As examples, he cited incidents in which members of the group drove into the city in Mercedes bearing no license plates, whereupon they proceeded to terrify local residents. He also claimed that unidentified individuals belonging to the group had beaten a police officer, adding that the officer's lawsuit was eventually dropped -- likely, he suggested, because he had been paid off.
Such impunity was apparent during the August 31 brawl as well, leading state investigators to probe why police who arrived on the scene apparently did nothing to stop it.
No Isolated Incident
The case in Kondopoga is just the latest example in which authorities exhibited complete ineptness as racially charged disturbances erupted.
"Vremya novostei" and "Komsomolskaya pravda" on September 5 compiled a list of such cases, all sharing traits of corruption and cover-ups by local officials that helped lead to unrest.
June 2006, Rostov Oblast: Clashes take place between local youths and members of the local Daghestani community in the 30,000-population city of Salsk. The disturbances were attributed to the "redistribution of spheres of interest." Members of the Daghestani community resorted to using weapons, and one person was killed and eight locals wounded. To quell the violence, the city government calls in a detachment of Interior Ministry riot police, the OMON. Local residents attending a city meeting demand that more be done to punish the perpetrators of the violence and call for the eviction of "every Daghestani from the krai and oblast." Arrests had been made as of September, but the situation remained tense following the beating of a local official at the hands of a young Daghestani.
June 2006, Irkutsk Oblast: In the village of Targis, local residents clash with Chinese migrant workers. Six people are injured, with police siding with local residents. Seventy-five Chinese workers are subsequently expelled.
May 2006, Chita Oblast: The village of Haragun becomes the scene of anti-Azeri riots in which one is killed, several are injured, and 16 are arrested. Unhappy about the influx of Azerbaijanis, local residents demand at a meeting that they be evicted. Afterward, homes, property, and vehicles are the target of violence and arson.
August 2005, Astrakhan Oblast: A conflict erupts in the village of Yanyki between local Kalmyks and Chechens. More than 400 people take part in the violence, in which one person is killed, several are wounded, and 14 are arrested. During an assembly attended mostly by ethnic Russians, demands are made for the expulsion of "non Slavs."
Such large-scale violence is occurring with increasing regularity, and there are signs that the trend will continue. The Federal Security Service (FSB), which by law is responsible for quelling mass unrest and ethnic disturbances, kept a low profile during the Kondopoga events -- leading to a serious consequence. Russian nationalists throughout the country have been stirred to action, under the banner: "Down with xenocracy -- the rule of foreigners."
Moscow Takes On Extremism
COMBATTING THE HATRED: RFE/RL's Russian Service on August 21 spoke with Kamilzhan Kalandarov, a member of the Public Chamber and a leader of the NGO Our Russia. (Read the complete interview in Russian). Kalandarov spoke about efforts the authorities are making to combat the wave of hate crimes sweeping Russia.
Kalandarov: Xenophobia today threatens the national interests of Russia. But I agree that the authorities are making good progress in this matter. First, the order on withdrawing Russian forces from Chechnya was recently signed. That is a big plus because the source of extremism, the sources of Caucasus-phobia are partly in Chechnya. Islamophobia grew dramatically after the first Chechen war. Next, the Public Chamber was created. We have a subcommission on nationalities issues and a subcommission that drafts projects related to xenophobia. This work is ongoing, which is why I think the authorities are really interested in making sure this problem does not go any further.
We should also mention the courts. I think that in many cases judges themselves hold [xenophobic] views. Second, we have not created normal conditions for protecting witnesses. People are not physically protected from various types of influence. Judges are afraid and witnesses are afraid. Because they have to keep living in that city. This defenselessness leads to cases not being pursued and to not-guilty verdicts being issued.
ARCHIVE To view an archive of all of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia, click here.
SUBSCRIBE For a regular review of civil-society developments throughout RFE/RL's broadcast region, subscribe to "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."
RFE/RL IN RUSSIAN: Visit RFE/RL's Russian-language website, featuring news, analysis, features, streaming audio, and more in Russian, courtesy of RFE/RL's Russian Service.