Putin and Medvedev Regime Challenged by Nationalist Football Fans

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 11

Rioting by nationalist youths and football fans on December 11, in Moscow was followed by fresh outbreaks of violence on December 15. Russian and non-Russian rioters known in Russia as “Caucasians” –representing different ethnic groups from the North and South Caucasus– are reported to have clashed with each other and with riot police (Otryad Militsii Osobogo Naznatcheniya–OMON). Security forces in Moscow chased groups of young hooligans in the Metro system and there were massive arrests. The Moscow city police department has reported over 1,300 were detained and 30 injured (Interfax, December 16). There were lesser-scale ethnic clashes in the streets of St. Petersburg, Samara and Rostov-on-Don (RIA Novosti, December 15).

The rioting has rattled the authoritarian Russian regime, whose legitimacy (as any autocracy) is based not on election results, but on total control and the effective suppression of public opposition. There was fear and anxiety on December 15, during the evening rush hours in the Metro that carries more than nine million passengers on work days in Moscow. The Metro had an eerie scent of an ethnic combat zone in the making, with “Russians” (people with Slavic-looking faces) and the different non-Russian passengers exchanging cautious glances, awaiting possible violence or trouble. People were using mobile phones to report their progress through the Metro system to worried friends and family. The heavy presence of security forces did not help to offer reassurance, since the corrupt and brutal police are nobody’s friend in Russia. As riots and the security forces partially closed streets, the notoriously bad Moscow rush hour transport situation turned into a traffic meltdown. My face is non-Russian, though being obviously Semitic, it does not really qualify as “Caucasian” too –not much of a bonus during ethnic strife.

The present political crisis began on December 6, after a street brawl between Moscow soccer club FC Spartak fans and migrants from the North Caucasus. Spartak fan, Yegor Sviridov, 28, was killed, allegedly by Aslan Cherkesov, 26, of Kabardino-Balkaria, using a legally owned rubber bullet pistol. Cherkesov’s lawyer, Venera Goncharova, claims it was self-defense (RIA Novosti, December 15). Sveridov’s killing and funeral initiated a series of mass protests by football fans, demanding punishment of the guilty “Caucasians.” On December 11, some 5,000 to 10,000 football hooligans and nationalists protesting against Sviridov’s death gathered on central Moscow’s Manezh Square close to the Kremlin. The protest turned into a riot, as teenaged nationalists displayed en masse Nazi salutes, yelled “Russia for Russians,” “Kill! Kill!” and “Moscow for Muscovites,” attacked non-Russian looking pedestrians and clashed with riot police that seemed to be reluctant to take affirmative action to restore order. The rioters eventually dispersed, moving into the Metro and continuing to attack non-Russians. Some told journalists that the OMON police and Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, supported “Caucasians” and were “rotten” (Kommersant, December 13).

President, Dmitry Medvedev, denounced the December 11 riots as “a crime that must be punished” and claimed it threatened the stability of the Russian state (www.kremlin.ru, December 13). Reports appeared in the Internet that on December 15, North Caucasian youth would gather in downtown Moscow to revenge the Russian nationalists (Kommersant, December 14).

Officials have claimed the nationalist riots were organized by anonymous forces bent on destroying Russia. Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, known to be close to Putin, in an address on Russian state TV recalled that the CIA used ethnic strife to dismantle the USSR twenty years ago and the same may be happening again (Vesti, December 14). The chief ideologist of Putin’s Russia, the first deputy chief of the Kremlin administration, Vladislav Surkov, claimed the nationalist riots were the direct result of nonviolent opposition liberal protests that are regularly aggressively dispersed by riot police in Moscow (Izvestiya, December 16). Surkov, 46, was born in Shali, Chechnya, the son of a Russian mother and a Chechen father, birth name: Aclambek Dudayev. Russia is indeed a multiethnic entity.

The officially registered permanent population of Moscow is some 10.5 million and 85 percent of these are ethnic Russians, according to the 2002 census. But, according to City Hall on workdays the actual population swells to between 15 million and 20 million with migrants that live in the city or the extended Moscow region suburbs (http://moscow.ru, December 15). There are millions of non-Russians in Moscow and the region from the Caucasus, Central Asia and other parts of the former Soviet empire and from different Third World nations. There are enough munitions for an extended ethnic confrontation.

The ethnically Russian working class populous of Moscow seems to broadly support the nationalistic rioters and football hooligans in their hatred of Caucasians and other non-Russians, as well as their disdain of the corrupt police. According to Gennady Gudkov, former FSB (KGB) colonel and deputy chief of the Just Russia faction in the State Duma, the riots reflect the negative feelings of the Russian people, disgruntled by “total corruption, inflation and lack of democracy” and “serious political reform is needed” as a permanent remedy (Kommersant, December 15).

The OMON police seems to be comfortable in using force to suppress the non-violent liberal opposition, but reluctant to do so against the Russian-nationalist working class rioters. The number of OMON troops is limited: two battalions in Moscow and scattered small contingents in other regions. The regular police force is ill equipped to deal with serious riots. The Putin and Medvedev regime has failed to build a professional military: the defense and interior ministry troops consist of poorly trained and motivated one year serving conscripts led by disgruntled officers. Plans to create a professional sergeant corps have faltered: during a recent interview the Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, disclosed that only 2,500 cadets are at present being trained as professional sergeants while hundreds of thousands are needed (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 24).

The conscript interior and defense ministry forces are incapable of effectively dealing with widespread ethnic strife if it engulfs Russia and they begin to split along ethnic lines, since ethnic hazing is already bedeviling many units. There is little backup to support the overstretched OMON. The regime does not have the means to impose an effective curfew in Moscow if ethnic strife genuinely spirals out of control. The Putin and Medvedev regime seems today much less stable and confident than only one week ago.