Russian police detain over 1,000 people amid ethnic tensions

Arrests in several cities, including Moscow, follow clashes between racist hooligans and ethnic minorities on Sat.

Published December 15, 2010 9:35PM (EST)

Fearing more clashes between racist hooligans and mostly Muslim ethnic minorities, police detained more than 1,000 people in Moscow and several other Russian cities Wednesday, after weekend rioting in the capital left dozens injured.

Hundreds of riot police outside the Kievsky station in central Moscow hauled into police vans mostly young men and teenagers who were shouting racist slogans and raising their hands in Nazi salutes. Some were lined up against buses and searched by police. Officers confiscated an arsenal of weapons, including traumatic guns, knives and metal bars, police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said.

Police rounded up about 60 protesters in St. Petersburg, where radical groups also planned a gathering Wednesday.

Riot police prevented clashes in Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don, southern Russian cities with large non-Slavic populations where ethnic clashes have been frequent in recent years, officials said. Dozens of mostly young men have been detained in central Russia and Siberia, Russian news agencies reported.

Resentment has been rising among Slavic Russians over the growing presence in Moscow and elsewhere of people from the southern Caucasus region, most of them Muslims. People from other parts of the former Soviet Union, including Central Asia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, also face ethnic discrimination and are frequent victims of hate crimes.

While ethnic Russians amount to about four-fifths of Russia's population of 142 million, the country is also home to some 180 ethnic groups. The Caucasus region with its mountainous terrain and isolated valleys is home to at least 100 ethnicities including Chechens, who waged two separatist wars against Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Analysts say it was the Chechen conflict, with atrocities and killings of civilians committed by both Russian federal forces and militant Islamists, that triggered the rise of xenophobia and neo-Nazism in Russia -- and the growing resentment of Caucasus natives to ethnic Russians and Moscow's rule.

Despite poverty and instability, the Caucasus region has Russia's highest birth rate, and tens of thousands of young people flee home for central Russia and Siberian oil towns in search of jobs and a better future.

The Kievsky train station, where most of the detentions took place, is popular with street merchants from the Caucasus. The majority of those detained were Slavic Russians, although some ethnic minorities from the Caucasus were also taken into custody.

Police declined immediate comment on when those detained would be released or whether they would face charges.

An expert on hate crimes predicted, however, that most of them would be released shortly.

"Police will ride them around town and let them go; they won't find enough place for them in police stations," Alexander Verkhovsky of the Sova center told the online daily.

Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin said no injuries were reported.

"Police will severely punish any provocations and violence," he said in televised remarks.

Authorities sought to prevent the kind of rioting that took place outside the Kremlin on Saturday, when mainly soccer fans chanted "Russia for Russians!" during clashes in which dozens of people were injured. Many soccer fans are linked with neo-Nazis and other radical racist groups that mushroomed in Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The violence over the weekend had raised new doubts about the government's ability to control the rising tide of xenophobia, which poses a serious threat to Russia's existence as a multiethnic state. It also embarrassed the Kremlin just days after FIFA awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia, and raised questions about Russia's ability to safely stage international sporting events, including the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

The weekend rally began as a protest against the killing of a member of the Spartak Moscow soccer team's fan club, who was shot with rubber bullets during clashes with Caucasus natives at a bus stop earlier this month. Spartak fans claimed corrupt policemen detained one suspected killer following the fight, but released others because they had powerful backers in the Caucasus.

Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev acknowledged Monday that investigators had made a mistake and said three more suspects have been arrested.

Russian media have been abuzz with rumors that some people from the Caucasus could try to take revenge for Saturday's riots, even as community leaders described the allegations as a provocation and called for calm.

Anxieties about what would happen Wednesday were palpable hours before protesters starting gathering. A shopping mall just outside the train station shut down hours ahead of schedule, and most stands at a nearby flower market -- operated mostly by people from the Caucasus -- were closed. Authorities towed cars in anticipation of possible clashes and helmeted police were on standby on a square and around the mall early in the morning.

A video in which anti-Caucasus slogans were interlaced with footage of ethnic minorities from southern Russia beating up policemen and Slavic men was posted on the website of the Spartak fan club Wednesday.

"They don't respect our traditions," the slogans said in reference to the Caucasus natives. "Now is the time to show them who's in charge. They went too far."

On Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev urged police not to hesitate to use force to put down riots, saying that leaving hate crimes unpunished would jeopardize stability.

Hate attacks in Russia peaked in 2008, when 115 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded, according to Sova, an independent watchdog.

Some Russia experts noted links between nationalist groups and some part of officialdom. Opposition groups claim that pro-Kremlin youth organizations have hired soccer fans and racists to carry out attacks on Kremlin critics.


Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow, Sergei Venyavsky in Krasnodar and Irina Titova in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

By David Nowak

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