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Southern Russian Town Becomes Focus Of Ethnic Tensions

Ethnic Tensions High In Central Russia After Deadly Scuffle
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Tensions continue to smolder in the southern Russian town of Pugachyov, days after a demobilized paratrooper was stabbed to death by an ethnic Chechen teenager.

Locals have demonstrated off and on since the stabbing on the night of July 6-7, loudly calling for ethnic Chechens who are not registered locally and who do not have permanent jobs to be evicted from the town.

Police have largely contained the demonstrations, preventing locals from incinerating the cafe near where the stabbing occurred -- a favorite hangout of the Chechen community -- and from occupying the local administration building. However, protesters have periodically blocked the highway between the cities of Saratov and Volgograd, and they insist they will continue to push for their demand.

The tensions were sparked when 20-year-old Ruslan Morzhanov -- a half-Tatar, half-Russian recently demobilized paratrooper -- was stabbed to death in a late-night altercation. Police have detained a 16-year-old ethnic Chechen who they say has confessed to the killing. According to many reports, both men were drunk at the time and were arguing about a woman.

After Morzhanov’s funeral on July 8, several hundred locals headed to a predominantly Chechen neighborhood and a street brawl ensued.

Authorities have urged calm and stressed that the incident was not ethnically motivated. Morzhanov’s father has blamed the incident on "vodka and drunkenness," noting that Morzhanov has always had many friends in all of Pugachyov’s ethnic communities.

Nonetheless, the latest incident has reminded locals that in the same cafe in 2010, an ethnic Russian named Nikolai Beshnyakov was stabbed to death. Beslan Mudayev, a displaced Chechen, was convicted in that case and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

'Any Small Spark'

Pugachyov is a town of some 40,000 people in a region sandwiched between the volatile North Caucasus region, Russia’s predominantly Muslim republic of Tatarstan, and western Kazakhstan. The town is predominantly ethnic Russian, but also home to some 3,500 ethnic Tatars and about 100 Chechens.

Many locals and other observers believe Morzhanov’s killing is being exploited by outsiders who see people from the Caucasus and Central Asia as a threat to ethnic Russians. Rustam Gilmutdinov, an ethnic Tatar and imam in Pugachyov, told RFE/RL that "there were provocateurs" ready to use "any small spark" to create a larger conflict in the town’s already tense situation.

Russian law enforcement agents detain a demonstrator during a protest triggered by the murder of a local resident by an ethnic Chechen in the southern town of Pugachyov.
Russian law enforcement agents detain a demonstrator during a protest triggered by the murder of a local resident by an ethnic Chechen in the southern town of Pugachyov.

Officials locally and in Moscow have said they will investigate both the original incident and the ensuing protests.

Vera Alperovich is an analyst with the Sova Center, which monitors ethnic relations in Russia. She maintains that similar incidents happen regularly throughout the country -- and are exploited by nationalists for their own ends.

"Such incidents happen two or three times a month, in reality," she says. "I follow the news reports of the [Russian] nationalists and they never miss a conflict of this type. They try to emphasize them and publicize them and report on them. For them, these conflicts are signs that an interethnic war is beginning, a war that they say must happen in Russia, which they are eagerly awaiting."

Alperovich suggests that, to a large degree, this is a result of the Russian government's failure to implement any policies aimed at fostering an overarching identity for all citizens of the Russian Federation. According to her, that failure has allowed deep divisions to fester.

She says that in the absence of an all-embracing civic identity, "there is a natural, customary tendency to relate to one's traditional ethnic identity -- and then we begin to see the mechanisms of xenophobia and conflict, which particularly can be seen in small towns where there are tight communities and everything happens in plain sight."

The recent events in Pugachyov have inevitably brought to mind a similar incident in the city of Kondopoga in 2006. At that time, two ethnic Russians were killed and several others injured in a brawl with ethnic Chechens at a local restaurant.

After the funeral of the victims, locals rioted in a bid for vigilante justice. Russian nationalists from Moscow flocked to the town and called on officials to resettle Chechens out of the area, and it took weeks for the tensions to die down.

Social Breakdown?

Although such conflicts involve ethnic groups from across the Caucasus and Central Asia, the two wars in Chechnya over the last 20 years and the continuing insurgency in the North Caucasus have often placed Chechens at the center of Russia's ethnic conflicts.

"These days, of course, Chechens are a pretty vulnerable part of Russian society," says lawyer Abusupyan Gaitayev, an ethnic Chechen. "Because of the consequences of the Chechen wars, these conflicts created so many fears in Russian society toward Chechens. Any conflict with the participation of a Chechen is not seen as a conflict between individuals. It is taken as a conflict between enemies -- and this enmity runs rather deep."

Valentina Uzunova, a researcher with the Ethnography Institute in St. Petersburg, sees an even more fundamental problem underlying the tensions seen in Pugachyov and elsewhere. She worries about a basic breakdown in social relations throughout Russian society -- affecting everything from relations among generations, classes, and social groups.

She maintains that she sees evidence of such a breakdown on a daily basis in reports of horrific incidents that demonstrate an alarming disregard for human life. In her view, this leads to situations where a dispute over a girl can easily end in a fatal stabbing.

"There is no empathy," she says. "And without a feeling of empathy, trust, sympathy, and compassion for one another, normal human relations are impossible.”

RFE/RL’s Russian, Tatar-Bashkir, and North Caucasus services contributed to this report

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