On July 27, a group of Dagestani traders clashed with the police near the market in Moscow’s Ochakovo-Matveyevskoye district. One police officer was injured in the fighting. The incident quickly rose to prominence in the Russian national news as video recordings proliferated across the Internet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHd-aLdnrX8) and Russian government officials reacted with harsh statements. According to the police, when they tried to arrest a Dagestani young man suspected of being a pedophile rapist, the man’s family attacked them, injuring the police officer (http://ria.ru/moscow/20130801/953696393.html). The alternative version of the incident is that the police extracted extortion payments from the Rasulov family and when the traders refused to pay up, the police framed a family member, Magomed Magomedov. Moreover, some people said the police started beating up Magomedov first, after which his uncle, Magomed Rasulov, intervened and inflicted injuries on the police officer (http://rusplt.ru/society/Oblavi-na-matveevskom-tinke.html).
The incident immediately revived the debate about the place of North Caucasians in the Russian Federation and resulted in massive punitive actions by the government. The police rounded up over 1,000 “illegal migrants” at markets across Moscow on July 29–30 and decided to deport them. A criminal investigation was launched against the district police chief. The suspect who attacked the police officer is facing life in prison for an alleged attempt on a police officer’s life (http://ria.ru/incidents/20130731/953396331.html). Other sources reported that over 2,000 “illegal migrants” were detained (http://newsru.com/russia/31jul2013/rynki.html).
The unofficial reaction of Russians was even more drastic. Russian nationalists in St. Petersburg staged what they called a “Russian Mop Up,” going to markets, beating up non-Russian traders and overturning their tables. The police intervened only after the nationalists destroyed dozens of traders’ stands (http://svpressa.ru/accidents/article/71917/). A 35-year-old female trader was stabbed to death in the Moscow district of Khamovniki (http://newsru.com/crime/01aug2013/cutwomselkbrmsk.html).
This incident of violence between police and migrants in Moscow came against the backdrop of an unusually competitive election campaign for city mayor. The official candidate and incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is being challenged by the popular opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. This probably explains why President Vladimir Putin himself called an unprecedented special government meeting on July 31 and discussed measures he said police and other law enforcement agencies should take to deal with the situation. Putin identified the primary root of the problem as corruption among government officials and tried to deemphasize the ethnic aspect of the incident. Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev vowed to undertake a permanent mop-up campaign against “migrants” (http://kremlin.ru/news/18980).
As the incident in Moscow set off a chain of hostile moves against Dagestanis, North Caucasians and Central Asian nationals, even the ostensibly loyal Dagestani government went public to defend their republican compatriots. On July 31, Dagestan’s official representation in Moscow released a special statement that acknowledged and condemned criminal acts by Dagestanis. “At the same time the attitude toward Dagestanis also is oftentimes biased,” the statement read. “Many of them do not always feel like equal citizens on the territory of their own country. Simultaneously, inadequate and sometimes apparently unlawful acts of certain agents of the law enforcement agencies are lauded, which pushes [the Dagestanis] to break the laws. We strongly condemn the large-scale activities of the Moscow police that are not warranted by law, which can be called a theatrical show of force” (http://chernovik.net/content/lenta-novostey/postpredstvo-dagestana-v-moskve-osuzhdaet-deystviya-moskovskoy-policii-na).
Apart from everything else, the crackdown on Dagestanis and other ethnic groups in Moscow undermines the mission of the new head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov. Moscow appointed Abdulatipov as head of Dagestan in February. He has been seen as Moscow’s man who would cleanse the corrupt government system in the republic. However, if Moscow is explicitly and indiscriminately hostile to Dagestanis, Abdulatipov will find it hard to convince the republican population that they should listen to anything Moscow officials say.
A “perfect storm” nearly took place in Russia following the violent incident in Moscow, which came amid a series of violent incidents involving ethnic Russians and North Caucasians and just weeks before the hotly contested Moscow mayoral election—which is an unusual event given the Russian government’s tight control over elections. It is worth noting that neither Russia’s main national TV stations nor President Putin reacted nearly as sharply to the riots against Chechens in the city of Pugachyov at the beginning of July.
Whether the Russian public is particularly intolerant toward North Caucasians or the government is trying to play the ethnic card to hold onto power, the result is very much the same. The North Caucasians are steadily being removed from ethnic Russian regions. Official segregation has not been introduced in Russia, but the rhetoric and the practical actions of the authorities closely resemble segregationist policies. The side effect of the trend is that Moscow’s political ambitions to create a Eurasian Union are rendered futile as the calls for a visa regime with the Central Asian and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries in general grow louder. Moscow Mayor Sobyanin stated that he supported the introduction of a visa regime with CIS countries, and 77 percent of Muscovites consider the issue of illegal migration among the most pressing. An estimated 400,000 migrants currently work in Moscow, about half of whom are in the city illegally (http://www.newsru.com/russia/31mar2013/sobyanin.html).
This latest incident in Moscow involving North Caucasians and the response of the Russian government have shown that ethnic tensions are building up in Russian society. Incidents involving North Caucasians receive massive attention in the Russian media and from the government. As popular elections appear to be returning to Russian politics, the populist pressure on the Russian politicians is likely to grow further. Increasingly, Russians are voicing the opinion that ethnic North Caucasians should be removed from Russia. This growing attitude may eventually result in the region’s actual departure from the Russian Federation—something no longer seen by many Russians as a disaster for the country, but rather as a blessing.