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Nationalism is becoming Russia’s ever more acute problem

August 16, 2012, 17:08 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Conflicts and inter-ethnic clashes, first and foremost, between Slavs and Caucasus-born migrants are a daily occurrence in Russia, and they go ever more acute. The authorities are obviously in dismay, experts say.

The latest reports of fresh ethnic-fuelled conflicts have caused a great stir in the Russian segment of the Internet. First, the Kasnodar Territory hit the headlines. According to bloggers and a number of media resources in the world web fifteen visiting Chechens beat up eight local residents, including two teenagers a nine-year-old in the Plodorodny village in a suburb of Krasnodar. Allegedly, they had warned they would “slaughter” the whole village. Some of the attackers were reportedly drunk.

Then there followed posts saying that the city of Ryazan, south of Moscow, has seen an ethnic explosion. According to bloggers, local taxicab drivers literally rose in revolt after migrants of Caucasus descent beat up a local young women. A crowd of several hundred gathered. The police have acknowledged there was such an incident, but they keep denying both the scale and the ethnic background.

Another scandal bearing a heavy ethnic flavor occurred in the Vyborg District of the Leningrad Region two days ago. Caucasus-born men first attacked a local woman in the town of Svetogorsk, and then started a fight with police the woman had phoned. Police had to fire warning shots in the air to restore calm.

On Tuesday, the media said the law enforcers had great problems with preventing a major inter-ethnic conflict in another town in the Vyborg district of the Leningrad Region. The local population turned out for a spontaneous protest against Asian guest workers employed at the local poultry farm – illegally, as it has turned out. The locals had long put up with a situation in which they were “phased out” from the farm that preferred to hire low-paid guest workers, and with the migrants’ attempts to dictate their lifestyles.

However, the public’s greatest attention lately remained riveted to the high-profile criminal case of Sambo martial art world champion Rasul Mirzayev, who negligently killed Russian student Ivan Agafonov. The conflict occurred in the summer of 2011. In front of a night club the two young men quarreled over a girl. A brawl followed. Mirzayev gave Agafonov a slap on the face. The latter fell on the ground, suffering a head injury. He died in hospital three days later.

The charges against Mirzayev have been changed several times. First, he was accused of causing premeditated harm to health resulting in death, for which he might be sentenced to fifteen years in jail. Then the charges were eased to negligent death. The maximum punishment under that article is two years in prison. Then the harsher charges were restored. However, during debate the state prosecution unexpectedly asked the court for a punishment not involving deprivation of liberty.

The experts agree that if it was an affair between two young men of the same ethnic group, the court would have no doubts it was dealing with a banal fight not deserving any special attention. What made the tensions white-hot was it was a clash between a Caucasus-born man and a Slav. Either party to the affair has many supporters and sympathizers across the country. Analysts attribute the court’s inconsistency to the fear of triggering stronger inter-ethnic discord.

Evidence to the effect nationalism is Russia’s sore spot is in abundance.

At the beginning of August, the governor of the Krasnodar Territory Alexander Tkachyov told a conference of senior territorial police officers there were plans for creating special teams of Cossacks to resist migration to the region from the Caucasus. Tkachyov argued that the Kuban Region should maintain the existing balance of Russians and other ethnic groups. For this the Cossacks should create hindrances to the comfortable presence of whom he described as ‘aliens.”

Tkachyov’s statement drew a tide of angry comments from human rights activists and public figures. The Public Chamber called for a probe into whether Tkachyov’s statement might be interpreted as extremist. And last week independent experts claimed that his utterance bore traces of a call for inter-ethnic discord.

Confronted with this rise of nationalism, the federal authorities look somewhat puzzled. The Presidential Council, under Vladimir Putin’s decree, should formulate and approve of a strategy of Russia’s nationalities policy by December 1, 2012. The Russian government, alongside the regional authorities, has been instructed to draft a package of measures for preventing ethnic conflicts, as well as establishing mechanisms for their settlement. For instance, to introduce mandatory tests in the Russian language, history and the basics of Russian legislation for migrant workers, excluding highly-skilled specialists.

The government is going to devise measures to perfect the operation of bodies of state power, aimed at preventing inter-ethnic conflicts. The final version will be discussed at a meeting of the Cabinet on October 4.

A source in the government has told the daily Izvestia that the authorities still have no idea of how to go about the business of dealing with inter-ethnic conflicts. “We are in the process of analysis. No one has a formula ready. I believe that not a single person in the country has it,” the official said. He believes that it is impossible to create a universal system of preventing ethnic conflicts. “Approaches in the North Caucasus, in the Far East and Moscow should be different,” he said.

To make the program more impressive the Interior Ministry and the federal security service FSB have been appointed (alongside the Ministry for Regional Affairs) responsible for considering measures to resist inter-ethnic conflicts. “Without the law enforcement it will be impossible to make this work effective. The conflicts which cannot be put out with pre-emptive means will have to be eliminated by the law enforcers,” the government official said.

In the meantime, representatives of the ruling party have offered a variety of initiatives. Shamsail Saraliyev, of United Russia, has called for refraining from any mentions of nationality in the mass media. Chechnya’s former minister for external relations, the nationalities policy, the press and information argues that this provokes ethnic conflicts.

“In the media one can read and hear every day: Two Chechens kill Russian, Armenian attacks Russian. Why putting the emphasis on nationality?” he complains. Saraliyev says such headlines make people angry and provoke more conflicts.

Moscow, August 15