Possible Consequences of the Matveyevskoye Market Affair

By Richard Arnold
On July 27, Moscow police clashed with Dagestani traders in the market near Moscow’s Matveyevskoye district. After a scuffle that ended with one police officer dead, the Moscow police launched a crackdown on migrant traders across the city, with 1,000 migrants rounded up for deportation. Competing accounts exist of the reasons for police involvement, inevitably casting the police as the heroes or the villains of the drama (see EDM, August 5), but the implications for the political situation in the country are perhaps the most concerning.
Most immediately, the principal candidates for the position of mayor of the Russian metropolis appear to be competing for the nationalist vote. Alexei Navalny’s association with the far-right “Russkie” faction of the protestors against President Vladimir Putin—including skinhead Dmitry Demushkin and the extremist Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) leader Alexander Belov—is well known, and Navalny has made specific pledges to crack down on illegal migration in his political manifesto (http://navalny.ru/). The establishment candidate, incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, has also been keen to play on the emotions of the situation, visiting the hospital of an officer wounded in the initial raid and reminding the public of the 30 markets he had already closed (http://regions.ru/news/2470150/). While politically organized nationalist formations may have already decided to support Navalny, Sobyanin is still courting the votes of ordinary Russians who support xenophobic ideas—the 56 percent who agree with the slogan “Russian for [ethnic] Russians” (http://www.levada.ru/books/obshchestvennoe-mnenie-2012). Aside from the decline in political rhetoric that will result from such a courting of the nationalist base, there is the danger of what political scientist Donald Horowitz described as a “race to the bottom” in his 1985 book “Ethnic Groups in Conflict.” Horowitz theorized that when politicians from rival ethnic groups compete in elections, they stir up ethnic conflict by competing with each other to demonize the other group as an electoral strategy. One could argue that the Moscow mayoral race is even more likely to end in bloodshed as two politicians are competing with each other to gain the support of the majority by attacking the same unpopular minority.
Even if such a scenario were to come to pass, however, on its own it would be unlikely to have much lasting effect on political stability. Far more damaging will be the increased polarization of ethnic identity within what the 1993 constitution defines as a “civic” nation. Signs already point to such a polarization happening. First, the newly-appointed head of Dagestan Ramazan Abdulatipov spoke out in defense of the Moscow market traders in a similar manner to how Ramzan Kadyrov has appointed himself spokesman of all Chechens in the Russian Federation (http://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/2013/07/pugachyov-and-kondopoga-technology.html). Second, the owners of a local bar in Moscow belonging to ethnic groups indigenous to Dagestan offered to pay for legal assistance to an arrested trader (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/228052/). As the Russian state is fighting an insurgency in the North Caucasus—a point emphasized by two explosions on August 4 and 5 (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/228169/) in the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala—it does not need to alienate the population any further, but should instead be trying to win the battle of “hearts and minds.”

Of course, there are many possible ramifications of the recent events in Moscow, not all of them as dark as those sketched above. Yet, the volatility of relations between Russians and ethnic groups from the North Caucasus is an unfortunate fact the authorities will want to keep quiet, especially with the 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in the southern Russian resort city of Sochi. The eyes of the world will be on the country in February, a point not missed by Doku Umarov, the leader of the insurgency movement, who called on his followers to prevent the Olympics from going ahead (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZsiBsYLebo). With time running out until Russia hosts this international sporting event, any increase in tensions between Russians and the ethnic groups indigenous to the North Caucasus should alarm not just the Russian government but also the International Olympic Committee.