Democracy Lab

The Race War in Russia's Capital

How simmering ethnic hatred in Moscow exploded into violence.

MOSCOW — It's been a sad Eid al-Adha this year for many of the Muslims living in Russia. On the eve of the holiday this year, police took to the streets of Moscow to arrest hundreds of illegal residents, many of them Muslims. As I followed the news I found myself recalling a recent conversation with my friend Magomed. Magomed, who hails from the southern republic of Dagestan, has nurtured a lifelong fondness for the Russian heartland -- and it pains him to realize that many mainstream Russians often don't reciprocate. He's fond of Russian culture and the Russian language, and he's happy that Dagestan became a part of Russia two hundred years ago. Like the many people from his part of the country who now live in Moscow, however, he speaks Russian with a perceptible accent, and his skin is darker than that of many European Russians. So despite his longing to be treated like other Russian citizens, his everyday experience tends to be somewhat contradictory: "If you're a dark-skinned guy from the Caucasus, they assume you're the enemy."

Ethnic tensions have been ratcheting up in Moscow lately, and last Sunday they exploded. The scene was a western suburb of the city known as Biryulevo, which has a large population of immigrants from the Caucasus. It's a depressing industrial district without many attractions, it's never had a subway station, and it's notorious for its bad pollution -- all reasons why immigrants have traditionally found it affordable.

It's important to understand that most of the immigrants living on construction sites and markets all across the country are living in Russia illegally. They tend to come from cultures that stress close family ties, and they use those networks of trust to protect each other when they're outside of their homes, a tactic that can often generate fear and mistrust amongst those excluded. Over the past decade, diaspora groups from places like the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia (especially Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), as well as the Russian territories in the North Caucasus (Dagestan and Chechnya), have monopolized the gypsy taxi network in the area. Others have established corrupt connections with local officials and businesses.

Instead of punishing corrupt employers for unlawfully taking advantage of low-wage workers, the Kremlin aims instead to close the borders -- which, needless to say, will merely boost the demand for cheap labor and thus end up exacerbating the problem. The widespread sense that the immigrants often live by their own clannish rules also aggravates resentment. Simple xenophobia is a factor, too. Despite Russia's long history as a multiethnic state, people from the Caucasus often look different from European Russians, and simmering discontent over current economic stagnation, inequality, and corruption can all too easily find itself transferred to the visible "others" within the community.

Biryulevo just needed a spark to set it off. Last week came the news that an Azeri immigrant had stabbed a young Russian man to death in the area. The initial failure of the police to nab the suspected killer additionally inflamed the situation. On Sunday afternoon, an angry crowd converged on the area's huge vegetable warehouse, which is alleged to be a locus of criminal activity in the neighborhood. Rioters also broke into a shopping center famous for employing migrants, as seen in the photo above. The crowd, which included men, women, and teenagers, vowed to smoke the foreigners out of the area, and soon a full-fledged riot was under way. The rioters attacked anyone who looked "dark," beating some of them badly. Raging crowds burnt shops and cars and ruined stacks of market goods. The ground turned red from watermelon and tomato juice. Even when squads of police arrived by bus to club and detain riot participants, the rioters held their ground. In some cases, members of the angry crowd surrounded the policemen, who cowered under their riot shields.

Alexander Belov, one of the leaders of a popular nationalist movement known as "Russkie" ("Russians"), told me that the participants in the Biryulevo pogrom were ordinary, angry citizens, not activists of any organized groups. Belov told me that he'd been on the scene "to monitor and coordinate the people's gathering." In his account, the locals had demanded action from the authorities, and, having received no response, proceeded to beat up the "blacks" (a slur often used for members of ethnic groups from southern Russia).

On Monday the authorities responded -- but not by cracking down on the architects of the violence. Instead they went after the victims, detaining more than 1,200 immigrants from the south Caucasus and Central Asian countries. On Oct. 16, three days after the riots, the police caught up with the 25-year-old Azeri man suspected to be responsible for the killing. It says a lot about the current state of race relations that the police had no compunction about recording themselves beating him up before they put him on a helicopter and flew him back to Moscow.

The authorities' only solution to the problem of ethnically motivated violence seems to be a crackdown on its targets, draconian reform of immigration laws, and the arbitrary arrest and deportation of hundreds of people. Such initiatives make leaders of the nationalist movements happy: finally, they say, the Kremlin has heard their calls to "cleanse" Russia of non-Slav faces. They were especially pleased by the announcement that the Moscow city government has decided to shut down the vegetable storehouse in Biryulevo, which has employed hundreds of immigrants for over a decade.

This week's events show that the Kremlin has more tolerance for angry crowds fighting the police over ethnic hatred than they do for liberal opposition activists. Last year, prosecutors started criminal investigations against dozens of opposition activists; by contrast, only three hooliganism cases have been opened against organizers of the Sunday event. Politicians are scrambling over each other in their efforts to cater to the nationalist fervor. Lawmakers are considering banning foreigners from renting or buying real estate without a special permit. Anti-immigrant groups are also collecting signatures in support of instituting a visa regime for visitors from Central Asia and the South Caucasus. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is sometimes accused of pandering to the nationalists, supports the idea of immigration reform. But the solutions he proposes are based on reinforcing the rule of law by fighting corruption and creating conditions to prevent businesses from daring to use the cheap labor of illegal immigrants.

The nationalist Belov says he is happy to see how authorities meet the demands of the people who were behind the Biryulevo pogrom: "Unlike the liberal opposition, we don't yell "Down with Putin!" he told me. "Instead we ask for solutions to concrete issues: to close markets run by ethnic mafias, to establish a visa regime for Central Asian immigrants and eventually for anybody who comes from the North Caucasus" -- even though the North Caucasus is actually part of Russia.

Independent experts say that the crackdown on immigrants is actually rooted in politics. "The Kremlin is playing a dangerous game of compromise with Russian nationalists in order to distract public opinion from the real picture of Putin's declining popularity," human rights activist Tanya Lokshina told me. "It's always easier to create a foreign enemy than to fight corruption and improve the system." That is, of course, a tactic that could easily backfire.

Yan Sizov/Kommersant/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Ferocious Pirates of Greenpeace

Russia's decision to charge environmental activists with piracy sets an ominous precedent.

MOSCOW — On Oct. 3, when I visited the Moscow headquarters of Greenpeace, the organization's office was buzzing with anxious staffers and friends. The activists were shocked, their faces drawn and nervous. They had spent hours at meetings with the Kremlin's administration and the Federal Security Service (FSB) looking for some solution to their problems. Earlier that day, a Russian criminal court had issued prison sentences to 16 more Greenpeace employees and sympathizers, on top of the 14 activists sentenced the day before. The charge: piracy.

The Greenpeace members I spoke to have endured years of official pressure and threats in their long struggle to prevent oil spills and other natural disasters. There have been many occasions when Greenpeace ecologists have found themselves confronting the FSB, the successor to the old Soviet KGB. But 15-year jail terms as punishment for environmental activism? The news was a bombshell. 

In fact, the protest itself was innocuous. On Sept. 18, the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, anchored a few hundred yards away from Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil platform, a 100,000-ton metal giant sitting 60 kilometers off the coast in the icy Pechora Sea. A few unarmed activists (one of them, the Russian journalist Denis Senyakov, equipped only with a camera) approached the platform on two inflatable boats. Then, two of the activists used rock-climbing equipment to climb up the rig's wall in an attempt to raise a protest banner. "They were later accused of threatening the security of the rig," noted Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace's energy department in Moscow. "But why is the rig out there in the ocean if it can be threatened by two guys with ropes?"

The activists were soon stopped. Russian Coast Guardsmen in balaclavas pointed guns at the activists and fired warning shots; water cannons on the top of the rig loosed torrents of water at the Greenpeace men. The next day, a helicopter arrived, and security forces soon detained the rest of the Arctic Sunrise crew. Putin later expressed regrets that he never had a chance to sit down with Greenpeace to hear about "their complaints, demands, and concerns." However, he explained that Russian security forces did know the identities of the people who were storming the platform. "It is absolutely evident, that they are, of course, not pirates," he continued. "But formally they were trying to seize this platform. It is evident that these people violated international law."

Greenpeace is indignant and has called the FSB's decision an extreme overreaction. "The Arctic is melting before our eyes and these brave activists stand in defiance of those who wish to exploit this unfolding crisis to drill for more oil," read the statement on the group's website. "Greenpeace International insists that piracy charges are unjustified, and that Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise illegally in international waters. Several international legal experts have supported that view."

The Russian Greenpeace employees wondered how President Vladimir Putin could possibly allow the draconian punishment of environmental protesters, especially since Greenpeace has performed exactly the same protests in many countries over the years, including Greenland, New Zealand, the Netherlands -- even, just a year ago, in Russia itself. Such activism has generally been recognized as free expression; until this past week, no government has ever sentenced environmentalist protestors on piracy charges. I watched as the activists in the Moscow headquarters browsed through pictures of their 30 arrested colleagues, all of whom have received two months of pretrial detention: citizens of Finland, Ukraine, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and 13 other countries. It seemed that citizens representing half the world were locked behind bars in Murmansk.

The FSB has a close relationship with Russia's big oil companies and their pipelines -- which is something that Vladimir Chuprov has experienced firsthand. Greenpeace first opened its bureau in Russia in 1989, and went on to work uninterrupted for the next decade. Police raided the organization for the first time during the environmentalists' struggle to prevent the import of nuclear waste into Russia. Secret agents questioned Chuprov's family, friends, and even his teachers back in his hometown in the Komi region about his criticism of Russia's gas and oil giants. His father expressed pride about his son's activism and pushed the interrogators out the door. Chuprov's math teacher Galina Shpekht told the FSB: "If you intend to arrest Chuprov, then you can send me along to the gulag with my former student."

But not everybody in Russia feels the same way about Greenpeace's storming of the oil platform in Pechora Sea. As reported by the polling group VTSIOM, around 60 percent of Russians believe the authorities were justified in employing harsh measures against Greenpeace. Russians often accuse Greenpeace activists of working as agents of the U.S. State Department, protesting to support policies that serve U.S. interests in exchange for money.

Members of Russia's underground art scene, by contrast, are more likely to take the activists' side. They often criticize the country's oil and gas companies for embodying a destructive national culture of addiction to the energy industry. Last July, for example, the punk rockers of Pussy Riot released a new song called "As in a Red Prison." The lyrics describe Russia as kingdom of gas and oil pipelines enriching Putin's best friends. Indeed, activists across Europe are staging dramatic protests against the recent arrests. The photo above shows protesters in the Puerto del Sol square in Madrid on Oct. 5.  

International diplomats and celebrities, including artist and activist Annie Lennox, Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, and actor Ewan McGregor, spoke out against the Russian authorities and their efforts to intimidate Greenpeace. The Dutch foreign minister vowed to free the activists: "I don't understand how this could have been thought to have anything to do with piracy," he said. "I don't see how you could think of any legal grounds for that." A Russian conservationist, Mikhail Kreindlin, who has also been threatened by the FSB for his attempts to prevent the destruction of nature around the future Winter Olympics site in Sochi, told me that the charges against his colleagues sounded outrageously unfair. "We are by principle a peaceful organization," Kreindlin said. "Our colleagues obviously weren't trying to take Gazprom's property by force."

The Kremlin's response to these criticisms was consistent with its reactions to previous arrests of oppositionists: President Putin's press spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Putin was not involved in any way in the charges against Greenpeace. He pointed to Putin's observation that piracy wasn't an appropriate charge. "He does not and cannot interfere in the work of investigative agencies," said Peskov. Yet one has to wonder how many Russians who heard Peskov's words took them at face value.

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images