Will the Moscow Riots Cause a Shift in Kremlin Policies Toward the North Caucasus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 187

Demonstrators chanting nationalist slogans in Biryulyovo (Source: Reuters)

On October 13, massive riots started in the Moscow district of Biryulyovo, which is located in the southern part of the city (see EDM, October 17). Many observers dubbed the events a traditional Russian pogrom against ethnic non-Russians. The participants of the riots stormed a local shopping center, a warehouse and turned over street stands of the traders and cars. The riots broke out after an ethnic Russian, Yegor Shcherbakov, was stabbed to death by an unknown individual of dark complexion who supposedly was ethnically non-Russian. The murder took place on October 10 and the suspected murderer was caught on CCTV camera. The police failed to find the murderer promptly and meetings with locals became increasingly heated, eventually spinning out of control (https://zyalt.livejournal.com/903605.html). As the riots spread and dozens of people received injuries, the police briefly detained hundreds of protesters. On October 15, the suspect, a citizen of Azerbaijan, Orkhan Zeinalov was arrested near Moscow. The government staged a show of arresting the suspect on television and presenting him to the Russian interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, personally (https://youtu.be/umS-P92c6Ek).

The tensions in Moscow did not subside even after a massive deployment of police forces and the arrest of the suspect. On October 18, the continuation of pogroms was reported in the southwestern part of the city (https://www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=526171CC7C179). Police, however, asserted that they prevented riots in the area as local youth gathered to take revenge for a Slavic woman’s rape by a group of non-Russians. The police detained the suspects from Kyrgyzstan (https://echo.msk.ru/news/1180326-echo.html). On October 20, Russian nationalists staged an unauthorized procession in the second largest Russian city, St. Petersburg. They attacked ethnic non-Russians and a shopping center (ria.ru, October 20). The timing of the riots was especially bad as Muslims celebrated the Islamic festival Kurban Bairam (more widely known as Eid al-Adha) on October 14–15. The police reportedly foiled a plot by Russian nationalists in St. Petersburg to stage false attacks on Russians and accuse the non-Russians. The well-known Russian nationalist Nikolai Bondarik was detained in the case (https://kavpolit.com/provokatorov-pojmali-s-polichnym/).

Violence in Biryulyovo reignited discussions about the North Caucasus and the relationship with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) among the Russian public. The charismatic leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny started a campaign to introduce a visa regime between Russia and the countries of Central Asia and South Caucasus. Navalny accused the government of ignoring popular demand for such a regime (https://navalny.livejournal.com/868564.html). While the North Caucasus is formally part of the Russian Federation, some popular Russian commentators think that it also has to be separated from Russia. “The North Caucasus and Russia are absolutely different spaces historically, mentally, religiously and so on”—Russian writer Mikhail Veller stated, speaking on the liberal-leaning radio station, Ekho Moskvy (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/1177902-echo/).

At this moment the Russian government’s response to the riots is still being hammered out, but so far the government refused to yield to popular pressure to introduce a visa regime with the majority of the CIS countries. At the same time the government did not revert to massive arrests of the riot participants, detaining only several suspects. The reason for such a mild reaction to the riots is that the Russian government is, after all, vulnerable to popular pressure when it comes from ethnic Russians, especially those, who reside in Moscow. The government launched another series of crackdowns against various migrants who live in the city legally and illegally. Networks of storehouses in Moscow that are often controlled by the North Caucasians came under government scrutiny.

Events in Biryulyovo indicated that ethnic tensions in Russia and Moscow are so high that they can easily become quite uncontrollable and massive. So the authorities are likely to adopt some measures to combat future outbursts of Russian nationalism. Already, some observers assert that the interests of businessmen of Azerbaijani descent in Russia may suffer, including Russian oil mogul, and president of the Lukoil company, Vagit Alekperov (https://kavpolit.com/zapadnoe-Biryulyovo-i-kotirovki-na-azerbajdzhanskij-biznes/). Supply chain networks, markets and shopping centers, often owned by North Caucasians in Moscow are likely to be targeted next. The fruit and vegetable storehouse in Biryulyovo, for example, which is owned by a Dagestani, has been scheduled for closure (https://tvrain.ru/articles/ovoschnaja_baza_v_birjulevo_budet_zakryta_v_ramkah_ugolovnogo_dela_o_besporjadkah-354510/). In practice, the closure of storehouses that belong to non-Russians will mean their transition into the hands of ethnic Russian businessmen. This transition in Moscow may affect Dagestani, Kabardino-Balkarian, Karachaevo-Cherkessian and other North Caucasian elites that have considerable investments in these businesses in Moscow.

A commentator at the RIA Novosti news agency, Vadim Dubnov, called the events in Biryulyovo, “The Vegetable Revolution” and reflected on the profound change that has taken place in Moscow in the past several days. “Hating those who are called migrants was considered to be acceptable and even decent prior to October 13. After October 13, expressing sympathy for them may become indecent and even a little risky” (https://ria.ru/analytics/20131014/969957027.html#ixzz2i7P726Vg). Vladimir Putin may still be behind the changes that have taken place in Moscow. On October 22, the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations will hold a visiting session in Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria. Commenting on the upcoming event, the president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, referred to the events in Biryulyovo as “simply criminal,” having had nothing to do with ethnic tensions. The session had been preplanned before and was not prompted by the riots in Moscow, Peskov reassured. The government is expected to unveil a system of monitoring and early warning for ethnic tensions and discuss the concept of strengthening the unity of the country (https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/17647531/monitoring-dlya-biryuleva).

When ethnic Russians’ disillusionment with the government is at its peak, they probably expect from Putin to indulge in dialogue with Muslims of the Volga region of Russia least. The most recent pogrom in Moscow demonstrated that ethnic tensions are becoming increasingly violent and closer to the seat of power in Russia—the Moscow Kremlin. Meanwhile, the Russian government is unlikely to be able to ignore ethnic Russians’ demands of putting restrictions on migration. In turn, restricting migration into the city, especially from the North Caucasus, will be a step toward institutionalizing the separation of this region from the Russian Federation.