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.
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.