On the night of January 21, ethnic Russians and ethnic Armenians clashed in the city of Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol region. Mikhail Grigoryan, a 23-year-old ethnic Armenian, stabbed to death Dmitry Sidorenko, a 29-year-old ethnic Russian and member of the Russian armed forces. The suspect was arrested along with two other Armenians within a day of the incident as he was hiding at the home of relatives. Despite the swift arrest of the suspect, ethnic Russian activists still staged public protests in Mineralnye Vody and the incident received a lot attention among Russian Internet users. The head of the organization Russian Unity of the Caucasus, Sergei Popov, wrote: “To stop Armenians with knives, Grigoryan [the suspect] should be put in jail for a long time and his family should be sent back to their historical homeland. In 1993, we did the same in Lysogorsk, after which the remaining 3,000 families [of Armenians] in the village stopped producing criminals and are now living on par with the Cossacks” (Kavpolit.com, January 25).
Sergei Popov is the ex-chairman of the Stavropol regional government’s Committee for Nationalities and Cossack Affairs. This indicates that ethnic Russian nationalism probably holds significant sway in the Stavropol regional government. Previously, ethnic Russians and, specifically, the Cossacks mostly clashed with North Caucasians; the Cossack Russian activists claimed they wanted to prevent the Islamization of Stavropol region, even when they clashed with Armenians, who happen to be Christian (Kavpolit.com, October 6, 2014). Russian protesters decry the authorities’ inability to investigate and prevent what they call “ethnic crimes” and are demanding that the government take more decisive measures against practically all ethnic non-Russians.
In September 2014, the Stavropol region was shocked by the killing of a 31-year-old ethnic Russian, Anatoly Larionov, at a local hospital in Mineralnye Vody. A mob allegedly consisting mostly of ethnic Armenians killed Larionov and the attack was captured on CCTV, fueling conflict in the area. Larionov was killed as the hospital guards looked on (YouTube, October 4, 2014). It later emerged that the murderers of the man had ties to the local government, and some officials were fired in reaction to public outrage (ITAR-TASS, October 11, 2014).
Two murders within such a short time have outraged many in the Stavropol region. The international context has also fueled anti-Armenian sentiment in Russia. On January 12, Valery Permyakov, a soldier from the Russian base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, killed an Armenian family of seven, including a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old (see EDM, January 16, 30). After Permyakov was apprehended, the Russian command in Armenia refused to hand him over to be tried by a local court. This shocking incident and Moscow’s reaction sparked mass protests in a country that has traditionally had warm relations with Russia. The mainstream Russian media largely ignored the tragedy and the controversy it caused (Slon.ru, January 16).
After the latest killing of Sidorenko in Mineralnye Vody, rumors spread that it was retribution for Permyakov’s crime in Gyumri. Georgy Safarov, the head of the Stavropol regional branch of the Union of Armenians, said that “it was an ordinary fight, nothing nationalistic. This is a direct consequence of drinking. I have heard that people connect it to the events [in Gyumri], but we do not know about such witnesses” (Kavpolit.com, January 25).
Ethnic Armenians are the second largest ethnic group in Mineralnye Vody and the city’s surrounding district, comprising about 7 percent of the total population. However, the area has a multi-ethnic population, with ethnic Russians comprising only about 70 percent of the total. Even though the overall ratio of ethnic Russians in Stavropol region as a whole is at about 80 percent, it has been in gradual decline since 1959, when ethnic Russians comprised more than 91 percent of the region’s total population (Dumask.ru, accessed February 2).
Russian activists became especially vocal in Stavropol region after it joined the North Caucasian Federal District in 2010, where all other administrative units, apart from Stavropol region, have majority non-Russian populations. Ethnic tensions in the southern part of Stavropol region have been quite common, but this is the first time in recent years that Russian-Armenian relations specifically have been affected so profoundly, especially as Russian-Armenian tensions have simultaneously been high in Armenia.
This latest spike in ethnic strife in Stavropol region is likely to aggravate ethnic tensions in the area further. Ethnic Russians are increasingly unhappy about the presence of other ethnic groups in the area and are demanding stringent border controls. Moscow, in turn, cannot abruptly sever ties with one of its handful of remaining allies, Armenia, so the authorities are targeting Russian nationalists in connection with the fueling of anti-Armenian sentiment (Shturmnews.info, January 29). The question, of course, is how much popular pressure the Russian government can withstand. Past experience suggests Moscow can defeat nationalist movements of ethnic minorities relatively easily, but that these efforts crumble when faced with Russian nationalist forces. The country’s imperialist foreign policy is paradoxically matched with parochial Russian ethnic nationalism at home, and the latter is likely to gain strength if Moscow’s gambles in its neighborhood fail.