The dramatic resolution of the fiscal-political crisis in the United States was barely noticed in Moscow last week (October 16–17) as two dissimilar events of a local character but heavy resonance focused public attention. The first one was a mass riot in the Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo (see EDM, October 17), triggered by a fairly conventional murder that escalated into a nationalistic pogrom, which the riot police suppressed only by mobilizing all available forces (http://rt.com/news/moscow-migrant-protest-timeline-154/). The second event was the court hearing in provincial Kirov of the appeal by Alexei Navalny against the verdict issued last September, which sentenced him to five years in prison for alleged fraud on flimsy and clearly fabricated evidence. The hearing was deliberately abrupt and the sentence was changed to release on parole, which still makes the newly-risen leader of the opposition a “convicted criminal” (http://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/72876). What comes through in the fierce debates on these events is that the discontent among the urban middle classes grows in parallel and interplays with the anger of the “have-nots” so that the crisis within the political regime built by President Vladimir Putin is gaining new dynamism and extra complexity.
The riot in Biryulyovo cannot be called unexpected as violent incidents involving migrants from the North Caucasus and diasporas from Central Asia have been happening in Moscow suburbs and indeed in many Russian cities increasingly often since the first major outburst in Kondopoga, Karelia, in September 2006 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 15). The angry, few thousand–strong crowd’s main target for attack was this time a large vegetable storage warehouse that allegedly employs hundreds of illegal migrants under the protection of local authorities and police (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 16). Several low-ranking siloviki (security services) personnel were instantly fired and the warehouse was closed; but these “decisive” measures cannot begin to address the problem of the colossal “gray” economy in Moscow based on the exploitation of essentially slave labor from Central Asia (http://www.forbes.ru/mneniya-column/protesty/246160-khozhdenie-po-bazam-3-oshibki-kotorye-mozhet-sdelat-vlast-posle-biryu). Neither can the authorities do anything about the ethnic gangs from the North Caucasus, which provide protection for semi-legal businesses that grow by recycling the massive budget donations meant to finance the “stabilization” of this troubled region (http://sobesednik.ru/dmitrij-bykov/20131016-dmitrii-bykov-zalivaya-kavkaz-dengami-vlast-vyrastila-gnoinik-kotoryi-esli-vs).
The trial and conviction of Navalny has been a central part of the Kremlin’s plan for decapitating the always disunited liberal opposition and suppressing the street rallies that have enlivened Moscow since the late 2011, much to the chagrin of Putin’s court. Many hard-liners and mega-thieves, who have been exposed by Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade, want to see him behind bars, but the quasi-liberals, who are afraid to provoke a new explosion of protests, have prevailed arguing against making a “superhero” out of an inexperienced populist, whose greatest achievement was gaining perhaps 30 percent of the very low vote in the September 8 Moscow mayoral elections (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 17). The trap laid for Navalny by the suspended sentence is that any minor violation of parole would send him to jail, but he has asserted with his trademark firmness that he will partake in every scheduled protest activity, no matter the consequences (http://navalny.livejournal.com/869601.html). He may find an effective political weapon in turning the trap against the trappers by challenging the authorities to imprison him again and again and forcing further retreats—or taking the increasing risk of a rally-and-riot combination.
Putin, who on previous occasions of nationalistic riots (such as the famous Manezhka riot in December 2010) took charge to deal with their causes, has opted to ignore the Biryulyovo case (Vedomosti, October 16). Some Kremlin aides tried to pin the blame on the Bolotnaya square activists who made street protests fashionable, but the responsibility for handling the crisis was delegated to Moscow city authorities and police (Novaya Gazeta, October 15). However, their responses were so misguided and awkward that most Muscovites see them as a sign of weakness of the overall regime (Moscow Echo, October 17). Navalny exploited this political opening to press the issue of introducing a visa regime in order to legalize labor migration from Central Asia (http://navalny.livejournal.com/870494.html). The issue has become outrageously hot, but Putin cannot touch it because it clashes with his vision of a Eurasian Union that could stand firm against Western “decay” and “interference” (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=23457).
Domestic disturbance, which Putin tries to disregard, translates into a growing list of minor but annoying foreign policy problems for Russia. Azerbaijan issued a formal protest against the mistreatment of Orkhan Zeinalov, the key suspect in the Biryulyovo murder, who was beaten on camera before a helicopter ride to the office of Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the Russian minister of interior (http://lenta.ru/articles/2013/10/17/orhan/). Lithuania, meanwhile, is mobilizing its European Union allies to defeat the Russian ban on the import of its dairy products (http://newsru.com/world/18oct2013/restriction.html). Moreover, the Netherlands are proceeding with their case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in response to the seizure of the Dutch Arctic Sunrise ship by Russian border troops after the Greenpeace action against Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform in the Pechora Sea last September (see EDM, September 26, October 3; Kommersant, October 19). Russian Attempts to gain some “patriotic” dividend from these setbacks—for instance by initiating a diplomatic row with the Netherlands—yield few results, and Putin’s approval ratings continue to slip (http://www.levada.ru/15-10-2013/putin-v-obshchestvennom-mnenii-do-i-posle-politicheskoi-rokirovki).
The Kremlin inflicts new political wounds on itself every day. Its only political strategy appears to be to keep the liberal opposition frightened of the prospect of nationalistic riots, thus blunting the discontent of the relatively affluent urban middle classes by the building anger of the “have-nots.” Many among the “white ribbon” opposition are indeed deeply concerned about the growing threats of pogroms—for which the Biryulyovo vegetable warehouse was just a convenient “soft target”—but they do not view the deeply corrupt siloviki as reliable providers of deterrence against this “vegetable revolution.” Instead, they see Putin’s persistent efforts at mobilizing the “patriotic” base as playing directly into the rise of xenophobia within Russian society. Whereas, the shameless self-enrichment habits of the president’s courtiers become intolerable for the low-income and high-debt social groups that are beginning to feel the pain of economic stagnation. Putin has stopped talking to the moderate modernizers among the liberals and has apparently lost touch with the “working classes,” which he fancied as his core electorate. The two waves of discontent are not directed against one another but gaining in strength from their interplay—and they demonstrate that Putin’s pyramid of power is, indeed, built on sand.