Police in Moscow today detained nationalist leader Dmitry Dyomushkin shortly before he was to attend a meeting with municipal officials to finalize plans for Friday's Russian March. Dyomushkin, who is under investigation for inciting ethnic hatred and violence, was released after being questioned. But, in what appeared to be an attempt to keep him away from the march, police warned him that he would be re-arrested if he committed even the slightest infraction.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 nationalists are expected to attend the Russian March, which coincides with National Unity Day. The holiday, instituted in 2005 to buttress support for Vladimir Putin's regime, has since been appropriated by nationalist elements that are quickly slipping out of the Kremlin's control.
Dyomushkin's detention, and the jitters the authorities are currently experiencing about the march, illustrate the degree to which the ruling elite is becoming increasingly spooked by the nationalist monster they helped nurture.
As Gazeta.ru pointed out in a recent editorial, in the past the authorities were able to harness nationalist groups for their own purposes -- stirring up patriotic sentiment, deflecting criticism of the regime, harnessing and controlling xenophobic elements in society, harassing the opposition. But these elements are increasingly demonstrating that they have their own agenda:
'Russian Marches' and other protest actions by nationalists were initially headed up by people more or less guided from above, and so they channeled their aggression solely against immigrants. But now there is a big question mark over how far they can be controlled. Recent nationalist events in Moscow have been accompanied by noisy attacks on the authorities, and of a kind to which there are no convincing responses...
The authorities have become accustomed to reacting relatively coolly to small protest actions by non-establishment rights activists and to manipulating the establishment parties with calm confidence. But the government has no doubt that nationalist slogans are capable of stirring up the broad masses. And when these slogans are combined with anti-regime exhortations, it definitely throws it off balance.
Nevertheless, as a recent story by Aleksandra Samarina in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" points out, nationalist themes are becoming increasingly prominent in the State Duma election campaign.
The Communists have called for a return of the so-called "fifth paragraph" in the Russian internal passport, which identifies an individual's ethnicity.
A brochure by LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- which has a print run of 10 million -- complains that Russians "are prevented from becoming aware of ourselves" and that "all the nationalities have become hostile to the Russians. They insult us, rob us."
Even figures usually associated with the liberal opposition like Vladimir Milov and anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny are increasingly carrying the nationalist banner.
The story notes that "the topic of nationalism is being exploited in an extremely selective manner" in the Duma elections with the authorities "reacting calmly to the constant exaggeration of this topic in the speeches and publications of the leaders of the parliamentary parties" while "taking a hard line with leaders of the non-systemic opposition."
"It is obvious that the Kremlin is very afraid, and it is right to be afraid of nationalism, which is getting out of control," the report quoted Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center as saying.
Zhirinovsky and others "have a license" to use nationalist slogans, Petrov added, because the regime believes that "it is a kind of vaccination against nationalism, when the process is being tightly controlled."
But the vaccination appears to be quickly merging with the disease itself.
Will this be the year that the Kremlin loses control of the nationalist monster it helped create -- both at the ballot box and in the streets? Friday's Russian March should give us the first hint.
-- Brian Whitmore