President Putin has turned up the volume since his return to the Kremlin in May 2012 in proclaiming Russia’s peculiar national virtues and traditions.
Wrapping oneself in the flag is a familiar way in many countries of buttressing a leader’s support, not least when that leader fears it to be under threat. Vladimir Putin and his colleagues are not untypical in combining Russian-centred rhetoric − through emphasis, for example on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church − with the parallel claim that Russia has an abiding tradition of respect for minority cultures within its borders. The result overall has been to put over a message more flattering to Russian ethnic sensibilities than to those of other national groups.
The question now is how far Putin has lost control of this ambivalent agenda. The three main features of the past year and a half have been the Kremlin’s attempts to sustain the status quo through suppression of criticism or opposition, the further emasculation of autonomous institutions including by sidelining the government under Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and the effort at retrenchment into a quasi-Soviet ‘Eurasian’ past. All three strands are intended to provide for short term safety for the ruling group but come at the expense of Russia’s longer term stability and prosperity. Hence a widespread sense in Russia of doubt as to the future, and outside it, of a perceived need felt particularly in other ex-Soviet states to resist too close an embrace by Moscow.
The rioting and looting on 13−14 October following the murder of a Russian national in the Moscow district of Western Biryulyovo, allegedly by an Azeri national, reflected this wider unease as much as it did the inter-ethnic tension that focused Russian reactions on that particular day. Had the police been trusted or capable they would have been able to deal with an individual murder. In the event, they lost control and resorted to rounding up as many of the actual or potential victims of Russian revenge assaults on persons of ‘non-Russian appearance’ as they could find. It was telling too that the authorities made no attempt to frustrate the 4 November Russian March − that march included a number of 'extremists' in anyone’s language.
The Biryulyovo district, as a typical repository of the conservatively minded electorate on which Putin has come to rely, returned a heavy majority to Mayor Sergei Sobyanin at the September Moscow elections. Putin and his colleagues will have been reminded by the disorder in mid-October that this electorate is nonetheless volatile, and that its trust in the authorities, whether local or federal, is limited at best. Putin himself still has high poll ratings – after all, who else is there? – but the polls also show that once particular questions as to policies and prospects are put to voters, they reflect a growing gap between the ruling group and the population at large. Given the way that the president’s say has grown since May 2012 into becoming the ever clearer driver of the system – or brake on it for that matter – that too is a verdict on Putin’s record and present standing.
The poorer urban Russians are more directly affected by other ethnic groups living among them than their better off counterparts. Those other groups of course include fellow citizens from for instance the Northern Caucasus as well as immigrant workers from the rest of the former Soviet Union – who are poor too, and typically, uneducated as well. It makes no difference when it comes to attacks on 'people of non-Russian appearance' whether these are Russian citizens or not. The number of such incidents has grown over recent years, but seem to be the work of violent gangs rather than organized political forces – so far.
The issue of the relationship between ethnic Russians and others has nevertheless moved steadily up the political agenda. Nationalist groupings are part of both the opposition, systemic or non-systemic, and those making up the regime. ‘No more money for the Caucasus’ has been one of Alexei Navalny’s more effective slogans. The Biryulyovo riots, the police raids on persons suspected of being illegal immigrants, and the 4 November Russian March all increased the focus on nationalist concerns.
But rhetoric is cheap, and realistic action hard to envisage, putting the governing authorities in a bind. Their focus has been on the question of illegal immigrants, not inter-ethnic relations as such. Putin has conveyed sympathy for the feelings of Russians, but for compelling practical reasons has not endorsed ideas for visa systems, whether for the country as a whole or Moscow in particular. Closing down the Biryulyovo market at the centre of the October troubles was an instinctive but not too persuasive reaction. Talk of introducing face recognition cameras for immigrants sounded resolute but that was all.
The truth is that Russia’s rulers have no answer to a set of questions that may well increase in their destructive force, not least given the way that the country’s economic prospects have darkened. Buying off trouble is no longer the option that it was. The authorities’ instinct will most likely be to deal with ethnic challenges by coercion, with non-Russian inhabitants their preferred targets.
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