Wednesday, 01 November 2006

THE KONDOPOGA RIOTS: THE SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?

Published in Analytical Articles

By Dmitry Shlapentokh (11/1/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The cause of the outburst was found in a local restaurant, Chaika, where the Azerbaijani owner had a quarrel with customers. The local police apparently did not intervene, and the owner called for the help of his Chechen friends, who arrived on the scene armed with metal stakes and knives and started to beat up the customers indiscriminately. Some witnesses claimed that they screamed, “Allah Akbar!\" (God is great) and “Let’s beat the Russians.
The cause of the outburst was found in a local restaurant, Chaika, where the Azerbaijani owner had a quarrel with customers. The local police apparently did not intervene, and the owner called for the help of his Chechen friends, who arrived on the scene armed with metal stakes and knives and started to beat up the customers indiscriminately. Some witnesses claimed that they screamed, “Allah Akbar!\" (God is great) and “Let’s beat the Russians.” At least a couple of Russians were killed and, some witnesses claim, quite brutally. The events led to a violent outbreak in Kondopoga, led mostly by ethnic Russians who attacked Chechens and other residents from the Caucasus, and their property. As a result, Chechens and other minorities usually referred to as “people of Caucasian nationality” fled the city. Order was restored only after the deployment of the riot police. From Eurasianism to Self-Centered Nationalism The ideology of Western liberal capitalism, which started to spread in Russia at the end of the Gorbachev era never took root, and soon started to fade. The actual implementation of the noble-sounding creed of Western liberal capitalism in real life was disappointing: many Russians soon discovered huge social polarization, unbridled corruption, and, especially at the beginning of Yeltsin’s tenure, rampant crime. Opposition to the Yeltsin regime, consisting of a motley array of nationalistic-minded Communists and hardliner nationalists usually known in post-Soviet parlance as the “Red-Brown” coalition, argued that all these problems were due to the destruction not just of the Soviet system but of the USSR as a mighty state. By the end of the Yeltsin and especially the beginning of the Putin era, the ruling elite had actually incorporated many tenets of the opposition. It was proclaimed that while the USSR was unfortunately irreversibly lost, Russia was still a mighty state and in a way a replica of the USSR. The term “Rossiiane” became widely used to define those who lived in the Russian Federation. The term defined residents not in the narrow sense as citizens – the usual case in the West – but in broad terms as a quasi-nation or community forged by centuries of common life together. This notion harkened back to the image of the “Soviet people” as a “new community,” or to the “Eurasian” model, which has became quite popular. The proponents of the Eurasian model emphasize that the people of Russia/Eurasia constitute a quasi-nation due to historical tradition and a common geopolitical space. But the notion of “Rossiiane” has started to be challenged by various forms of Russian nationalism. One form, supported by an increasingly assertive Russian middle class, implies that Russia is a state of ethnic Russians, not of “Rossiiane” consisting of various ethnic origins. Ethnic Russians, in this view, should maintain a dominant position over the minorities. Another interpretation of the new approach – supported by the disenfranchised and impoverished majority – implies that Russia cannot and should not dominate minorities, who increasingly challenge the ethnic Russians’ demographic dominance, and are better organized. Russia can neither assimilate nor Russify them. The best strategy is just to expel them and, if needed, shed the ethnic enclaves in the Federation where Russians cannot dominate completely. This kind of outlook apparently prevailed among those who participated in the Kondopoga outburst, where local Russians proposed expelling all people of “Caucasian nationality.” While their native town was their immediate concern, they believe these sorts of actions should take place all over the country. Not only should Chechens and other “Caucasians” be expelled, but other similar troublespots in the Caucasus should be abandoned. An Internet discussion generated by the events revealed an entire program for abandoning the ethnic enclaves where Russians could not dominate by numbers or force. According to some of those who were engaged in this discussion, the enclaves to be abandoned included not just the troubling North Caucasus but even Khakassia in Siberia, on the grounds that the area has already been taken over by the Chinese. Some proclaimed that Russia, if cleansed from most minorities, should separate itself not only from ethnic enclaves but even from Moscow, the imperial and implicitly non-Russian city whose residents live at the expense of the rest of the country. The program of shedding the undesirable parts of the Russian Federation goes along with the program for regime change. Putin as A Non- Russian Ruler In the view of some of those who engaged in the event or discussed it on the Internet, the Putin regime’s attempt to keep ethnic enclaves inside the Federation, its repression of Russian nationalists, and what they regarded as catering to the economic interests of the minorities – from Chechens to Jews – indicated clearly that Putin is not representing the interests of ethnic Russians. His is a regime of alien forces that came to power by blood. Those of his persuasion proclaimed that it was Putin and his clique who had arranged for the apartment buildings in 1999 in Moscow and other places in order to achieve power. Thus, in a peculiar ideological twist, Putin’s attempt to keep ethnic enclaves such as Chechnya inside the Federation is related not with his nationalism but with his anti-Russianness and explains the nature of Chechens’ response to events. For example, when Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Moscow Prime Minister and viceroy of a sort, proclaimed that he would intervene to stop anti-Chechen pogroms, some of those who engaged in discussions stated that Kadyrov’s boldness was a direct result of Putin’s support. In fact, Putin, unsure whether his anti-Russian clique could rely on Russian forces, had planned to create a kind of Chechen janissary force – praetorian troops comprised of foreigners who would allow Putin and his anti-Russian clique to maintain their power over the helpless Russian masses. One could argue that similar ideas, i.e. that the regime is basically anti-Russian, have been circulating among the enemies of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and lately Putin for a long time. The point of Kondopoga was that these slogans and protest feelings started to acquire organizational flesh. The New Soviets and New Bolsheviks Troubling for the authorities is not the spreading of such views among those who were either directly or indirectly affiliated with the Kondopoga event, but the fact that the protest was well-organized. It is true that the event was marked by a splash of pogrom-type violence – but there was another aspect not much elaborated on by observers. There was a several-thousand-strong demonstration – a great feat for a small town – something Russia has not witnessed since the early 1990s. The other important aspect of the Kondopoga affair is that contrary to the protest in 2005 caused by abolishing perks enjoyed by pensioners, all age groups participated in the demonstration. Moreover, the crowd not only conveyed their grievances to the authorities in a collective petition but also started to create their own druzhina, paramilitary detachments, presumably to protect the locals. They also demanded the creation of an independent commission to control and investigate trade in the city. In fact, the locals had taken first step towards creating a parallel structure of power, a sort a replica of the grassroots Soviets in the 1905 Revolution when, as in the case of the Kondopoga event, they emerged amid a wave of ethnic strife, pogroms, and crime. To take the analogy even farther, one could see the emergence of a new nationalistic “Bolshevism” in the “Movement Against Illegal Immigration,” which emerged a few years ago and proclaimed Russia’s purification from “illegal” émigrés, actually from any non-Russians and particularly “non-whites”, as its major goal. Arriving on the spot, representatives of the movement tried to convince the local Russians that without cardinal changes, the life of ordinary Russians would not change for the better. The leaders of the movement almost instinctively followed Lenin’s dictum about the importance of providing any spontaneous movement with clear ideology and leadership. The representatives of the movement imitated the Bolsheviks in the speed with which they spread their ideas; and they and other Russians placed hundreds if not thousands of their leaflets in the Moscow subway. Implications of Kondopoga What is the implication of the events in Kondopoga? Skeptics could easily reason that these events could be easily ignored as just another episode of small-scale ethnic conflict in post-Soviet Russia. Indeed, the events were isolated and did not spread, as the nationalists had hoped. Riot police easily dispersed the crowd, and seemingly nothing came from the locals’ call to create a parallel autonomous power structure. Finally, some historical examples could demonstrate that the central power can sustain what seems to be enormous pressures, as demonstrated by the 1905-1907 Revolution, when many contemporaries believed that the monarchy was surely about to fall. Still, taking all these elements into consideration, one could consider that the Kondopoga events might be the beginning of an important process with far-reaching implications in the long run. To start with, the conditions for an ethnic brand of violence will not disappear. Second, the idea of the separation of Russia with ethnic Russians from ethnic enclaves would be quite pleasing for many ethnic leaders in these enclaves. Moreover, the mutual desire for “divorce,” shared by Russians and many ethnic minorities alike, could also be reinforced by strong, lingering regionalism, the desire of purely Russian regions if not to separate themselves completely from the center, then at least to minimize dependence on it. Finally, while history has demonstrated that regimes can survive under what seems to be tremendous pressure, the same historical experience has demonstrated the opposite – the ease with which regimes that seem to be stable regimes fall. If, indeed, this were to happen, the Russia that would emerge out of this upheaval could be much smaller and would have a clear “national-socialist” bend, for its elite would be likely to redistribute property and quite likely increase the safety net for the “folk Russian”. The temptation, of course, is to see such a regime as quite dangerous for the West. But one should remember that such a regime—in sharp contrast to Nazi Germany—would be inward-oriented and strongly against any expansion. Moreover, it would quite likely be strongly pro-Western. Indeed, all Russian skinheads and neo-Nazis have great respect for the European and American Right and even more for European/American neo-Nazis. As a matter of fact, those who participated in discussions relating to Kondopoga have quoted them with approval. Thus, those who participated in the Kondopoga events actually look for a much smaller, ethnically homogeneous national-socialistic Russia of sorts and also profess the idea of “fortress Russia.” One might also add that “fortress Russia” could follow in many ways the ideas of “fortress Europe” and “fortress America,” where the fear of non-Caucasian émigrés is a sublimation or reflection of continued geopolitical and demographic changes of global dimensions. AUTHOR’S BIO Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, South Bend.
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