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Pogroms Return to Russia | The Nation

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Pogroms Return to Russia

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On the eve of Vladimir Putin's upcoming visit to the United States, there is a troubling new phenomenon developing in the Russian capital. A series of mass skinhead attacks against Muslims, attacks the Russian press are openly calling "pogroms," has disturbed the city in the past two weeks, claiming three lives and prompting more than 300 arrests.

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Matt Taibbi
Matt Taibbi is a columnist for New York Press.

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The incidents are among the most serious threats to social order to hit the capital during Putin's reign, and also may tarnish the reputation of America's ally in the Afghan war--particularly as some of the attacks were directed specifically at Afghans.

The worst of the pogroms occurred on October 30, in Moscow's southern Tsaritsino region, where a crowd of more than 300 shaven-headed teenagers--apparently fans of the soccer team Lokomotiv--attacked dark-skinned people outside a street market. When police intervened, part of the crowd dispersed and traveled by subway to the nearby Kakhovskaya region, where they descended upon the hotel Sevastopol and attacked some two dozen Afghan residents, among others, as they came in and out of the building.

There is a small Afghan population in Moscow, mainly ethnic Afghans who were born and raised in ex-Soviet territories bordering Afghanistan: Kirgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. Some are immigrants from the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Many are migrant shuttle-traders who live in hotels, and as such share in the unpopularity experienced by other non-Russian preyezhiye (arrivals) who inhabit Russia's street markets.

Imposing crowds of teenage soccer fans are nothing new in Moscow. In the past few years a curious synthesis of the soccer hooligan and skinhead movements has been observed steadily gaining strength in the city. It's no longer uncommon in Moscow to see crowds of 300-400 soccer fans--dressed in the black bomber jackets and black boots popularized by German skinheads--loitering on the streets in the city's outer regions, and not always on the same nights as soccer matches. In the most celebrated incident prior to the recent pogroms, fans of the Spartak and Torpedo soccer teams rioted outside the US Embassy in the spring of 1999, apparently in protest against the attack on Kosovo.

But these recent incidents are something new. For one thing, the scale and intensity of the violence is unprecedented, as is the fact that the attacks were apparently organized and premeditated. In the October 30 incident, police determined that the 300-plus crowd of teenagers had first gathered in a wooded area of the Tsaritsino region and held an orderly meeting there before heading to the market. One police spokesman, Sergei Shevtsov of the city police press office, even went so far as to say that investigators had determined that the original targets of the attacks were antiglobalist protesters in the city center, where the last day of the Davos economic conference meetings were being held. Only when "advance scouts" determined that there were no antiglobalist protesters there at that time, Shevtsov told Izvestia, did the crowd settle on the dark-skinned workers at the market as a target.

Many people who followed the news, particularly those in the Muslim soccer violence. "These were clearly organized and carefully planned, and not some spontaneous outburst by a group of teenagers," said Geidar Jamal, leader of the Islamic Committee of Russia. "The behavior was both more ferocious than usual, and more controlled."

Official estimates of Russia's Muslim population range between 12 million and 13 million, while Islamic organizations claim that the number is closer to 20 million. There are several powerful semi-autonomous Islamic regions, including Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, and the Putin government has taken pains to assure Russia's Muslims that its support for the US bombings in Afghanistan is not an anti-Muslim campaign.

Also startling has been the sheer quantity of attacks and arrests in the past two weeks--conspicuously high even for a city as violent and crime-ridden as Moscow. A lengthy series of attacks followed the October 30 incident, in regions all over the capital.

On October 31 a Dagestani man was shot outside the McDonald's on Bolshaya Dorogomilovskaya Street, across from the Radisson Slaviyanskaya hotel; witnesses said the shooters were young men with shaved heads. On November 1, on Bolshaya Naberezhnaya Street in the northwest region of the city, about 100 skinheads rioted, causing minor injuries to bystanders both Slavic and Caucasian.

Two days later, on the evening of November 3, about 150 teenagers, mostly soccer fans/skinheads, were arrested in five or six different violent incidents all across the city. According to Moscow chief of police Vladimir Pronin, minor riots broke out outside four Metro stations- Timyaryzevskaya, Petrovsko-Razumovskaya, Altufyevo and Domodedovskaya, as well as in the southern region of Orekhovo-Borisovo Yuzhnoye. The riots broke out in three separate geographical areas: north, southwest and south. "There were no serious 'excesses,' " Pronin told the Ekho Moskvy radio station, adding that he believed the incidents were organized and "definitely" connected to the October 30 pogrom.

Last but not least, there was a curious incident on October 29, the day before the Tsaritsino pogrom. According to Sergei Dorenko, an anchorman for the TV-Tsentr network who is perhaps the country's best-known and also most hated media personality, eight teenage skinheads raided his office and attacked his staff while he was taping his show during the afternoon. Dorenko told Ekho Moskvy that one of his female co-workers suffered a concussion during the attacks, which inspired the amazing spectacle of an entire production crew barricading itself inside the studio while they frantically dialed for help on their cell phones. All eight attackers managed to escape the studio without being detained, the station later reported.

Who's behind the attacks? And why are they happening now? There are several popular theories being floated in Moscow political circles, and all of them speak to a dark future both for the Putin administration and for US-Russian relations. For the most part, talk has focused around three different scenarios.

The first is that the attacks were organized and carried out entirely on the initiative of some small extremist right-wing party. The group most commonly named in this scenario is the neo-Nazi RNE, or Russian National Unity, headed by notorious arm-band-wearing fascist Alexander Barkashov. RNE armbands were allegedly seen on some of the attackers in the October 30 incident.

Other popular suspects include groups like the RNP, the Russian National Party, and Russkaya Tsel' (Russian Goal), which is headed by a skinhead named Sergei Tokmakov, who gained fame in 1998 for beating up a black US Embassy employee.

The other two popular theories both hold that the attacks were organized by small extremist groups who themselves were manipulated by larger government forces. One of these theories holds that the groups are being used as part of a new terror policy actively being instigated by the Putin administration; according to the other theory, groups within the government who oppose Putin are orchestrating the attacks in order to sabotage the president's new pro-Western policies by tarnishing Putin's reputation in the West.

The Islamic leader Jamal ascribes to the former theory. He believes that the attacks were organized by Russian secret services, perhaps by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, as part of a new method for ridding the capital of "persons of Caucasian nationality."

"Something on this scale could not have been done without the secret services," he said. "The object is clearly to incite the population against 'guests of the capital.'" Sergei Mitrokhin, a Duma deputy for the liberal Yabloko party, agrees that he, too, cannot exclude the possibility that the skinheads are being used by the government "to undertake unusual political objectives." He sees disturbing historical precedents for exactly these kinds of tactics.

"It is very convenient for an authoritarian government to have at its disposal these crowds of willing, young violent youths who will do just about anything you tell them to do," he said. "The same kinds of people were used for similar political ends in Germany in the 1930s."

Mitrokhin, however, is more inclined to believe the last theory, that the attacks were evidence of an attempt to discredit Putin at a time when he will be very much under the microscope in the West.

"Obviously, the fact that the pogroms took place on the last day of the Davos conference suggests that there was an attempt to make some kind of statement to the international community," he said. "And Putin is about to travel to the United States to meet with Bush in a critical and highly publicized meeting. It would seem significant that the attacks would be intensified exactly at this moment."

Regardless of who was actually behind the attacks, the rise of the skinheads does appear to represent a disturbing trend in the larger population. After two years of an unusually bloody war in Chechnya, and now in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, resentment toward Caucasian peoples--who, owing to their reputation as marketplace racketeers, were never popular in this city, even in the best of times--appears to be at an all-time high. Last week, the television show Catastrophes of the Week on the TV-6 network, in conjunction with the news program on the TV-Center network, conducted an informal call-in poll which found that 87 percent of Muscovites supported the actions of the pogrom participants. Only 7 percent of callers said they would have attempted to stop the attacks if they had been there.

The support for the skins doesn't stop at the general population. One of the main reasons they have risen to such prominence is the fact that the police are at best indifferent to them and, at worst, actively sympathize.

"Groups like the RNP, Russian Goal and the RNE have their roots in cells that were formed way back in the days of perestroika," Mitrokhin said. "To date, not one of them has ever really been the focus of any serious campaign by the police. That's because the police tend to sympathize with their goals, which was aptly demonstrated on the night of the October 30 'pogrom.' when a mass of 300 armed teenagers, not exactly a stealthy gang, was allowed to wander the city committing mayhem. There is no love lost between the police and the Caucasians."

Russia would appear to be a prime candidate to drift into fascism. It has an impoverished native population that feels itself to be victimized by Caucasians who dominate their street businesses; by Jews who are prominent in government and banking; and by the influence of the West and in particular the United States, whose commercialistic values are a dominant factor in daily economic life and in pop culture. It has a popular nationalist leader who does not hide his great-power ambitions. Whichever side of the emerging movement Vladimir Putin is actually on, he may soon find himself forced to explain the behavior of his countrymen to the world--perhaps even beginning this week, to President Bush.

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