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October 16, 2013

The Return of Riots: the Biggest Threat Facing the Russian Government?

By Innokenty Grekov
Fighting Discrimination Program

This past weekend, a man walking his girlfriend home was stabbed to death in an industrial district on the outskirts of Moscow called Biryulevo. When news spread that the murderer was a non-Russian migrant, people rioted. They overturned cars, threw debris at police, and smashed windows, demanding that the killer be found. “Russia for Russians” was the day’s slogan. The police arrested 300 rioters, rounded up some 1,200 migrants, and showed off a chief suspect—a citizen of Azerbaijan—on state TV.

In recent years, the Putin government has been trying to protect its power by cracking down on dissent. Yet the pogrom that took place in Biryulevo over the weekend is another reminder the most potent threat to the government is the mounting anger not of activists but of ordinary citizens, who are fed up with corruption and economic inequality, and who probably don’t care much about the fate of Pussy Riot or gay rights in Russia. Ethnic minorities are often the victims, but the primary target of this anger is Vladimir Putin's regime.

Biryulevo’s closest relative is the Manezh Square riot that rocked Moscow in December 2010, when ultranationalist groups were able to quickly mobilize thousands of supporters to rally in downtown areas. As in Manezhka, the riots were sparked by a murder of an ethnic Russian, allegedly slayed in street violence by a non-Slavic hand. In retaliatory ethnically-motivated attacks, mobs assaulted passersby on the subway and the street. Police were late in responding. The Kremlin was quiet in fear.

The Manezh Square riot was a major sign that things weren’t going well for the government. When it happened, in the early evening of December 11, 2010, my colleague from Human Rights First and I walked through the Manezh square, en route to a meeting with civil society reps. I had already heard that a Spartak Moscow soccer fan was murdered, and we saw hundreds of people beginning to gather, spontaneously, at the square near the Kremlin. We rushed to our meeting and didn’t see the thousands who took over the Square—at the time, the largest protests in modern Russian history.

The authorities dubiously blamed the Manezhka in 2010 on several “organizers,” mostly affiliates of Eduard Limonov’s banned National Bolsheviks. Some of them are still jailed, and because of how things turned out in 2010, Limonov ordered his underlings to avoid Biryulevo. No doubt the authorities will follow this same drill and prosecute a few of the people who took part in this weekend’s rioting, and no doubt their jailing will further undermine the government’s credibility among Russia’s disenfranchised, working-class dissenters.

The Russians who rioted this weekend on Moscow’s outskirts see corruption everywhere. They are dissatisfied with their government, discontent with the distribution of wealth and resources, angered by the police’s feebleness and inability to investigate crimes big and small. In a staggering admission of defeat and incompetence, the Biryulevo district head Viktor Legavin said, these events “could have taken place anywhere” in Moscow. And they will.

From Manezh Square to Biryulevo to the next scene, the Kremlin will have to live in fear of its own people unless it chooses to address these grievances.