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.