Unlikely alliance of violence in Russia

Unlikely alliance of violence in Russia
By Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.

While most Russian observers regard Muslim militants from the North Caucasus as the major source of terrorism, a new threat is emerging: Russian extremist nationalists, who are carrying out an increasing number of attacks. The most recent was the November 27, 2009, Nevsky express bombing that killed 20 people and injured 100. Russian nationalists claimed responsibility, although subsequently Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov's Islamists said it was their work.

Still, the predominant role of Muslim extremists in terrorist activities does not diminish the potential danger of Russian extremists, especially if they begin to cooperate with Islamists. Indeed, this process might already have started. According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, a popular Russian newspaper, which, despite its yellowish tint often provides important information, some Russian extremist groups have contacted Umarov to engage in a common struggle in defense of "white men" (pure Slavic) and, implicitly, against the regime in Moscow.

This week, Moscow police arrested 24 protesters following an anti-fascist gathering of about 1,000 people to commemorate the first anniversary of the murder of a human-rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, and a journalist, Anastasia Baburova. The protesters blame the murders on nationalists and have called for a crackdown on far-right groups, saying that Russia is becoming a police state. Those arrested - on charges of staging an illegal rally - came from the main group of protesters. They had been heckled by about 50 men in balaclavas chanting slogans like "forward with the Russian race", according to a Reuters report.

This raises the issue of why Russian nationalists, mostly young people, would be against the administration of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who themselves have been under attack for failing to solve a number of cases involving high-profile critics of the Kremlin over the past few years. A brief review of post-Soviet history provides a clue.

The attitude of Russian youth to the post-Soviet regime has experienced several dramatic changes in the past 20 years. At the dawn of the post-Soviet era in the early 1990s, most youths sympathized with or were a part of pro-Western groups. They saw the West as not so much a symbol of political liberty or even of an orderly market economy, but as an anarchical utopia with little restraint, not to mention abundant sex and money. They believed that the end of the restrictive powers of the Soviet regime would make them rich overnight. As the years passed, though, they came to realize that the new regime would give to the majority, especially to provincial folk, nothing but misery, and their resentment grew. Pro-Western sympathy eroded, to be replaced by Russian nationalism. At this point, youths were not much different from the majority of Russians.

Putin used these feelings to rise to power, serving as president from 2000 to 2008. Still, the regime, while changing its ideological autocracy, did not change the social and economic arrangement - the gap between affluent Moscow and the poor provinces remained. The fascination of the youth with Putin and the official brand of nationalism declined, and radical nationalism became increasingly directed against the regime and the Russian state in general.

The representatives of this specific brand of Russian extremism proclaim that the Russian state (empire) is just a trick to perpetuate the dominance of minorities. In their view, the imperial Russian state has been historically in the hands of minorities, and the call for the strengthening of the Russian state is nothing but a way of strengthening the power of the minorities - from Jews to Chechens - over helpless Russians. Russians thus need to liberate themselves from the oppressive Russian state, which radical nationalists believe should either be shrunk to a small but ethnically homogeneous "republic of Russia", or be dismembered into autonomous regions. In any event, all means are acceptable if they lead to Russians' liberation from Moscow - the ultimate manifestation of Russian oppression and actually considered a non-Russian city. In a sense, their logic is similar to that of Russians at the end of the Mikhail Gorbachev era (1991), when many regarded the Soviet empire as a liability for ordinary Russian people. Still, the new generation of Russian youth is different from the opposition to Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin. The most important difference is their acceptance of violence.

There are several reasons for this. First, they were raised in the post-Soviet era and had no experience of the brutal efficiency of the repression mechanisms of the totalitarian state. Secondly, they grew up in a milieu of constant criminal violence, an inescapable aspect of life in post-Soviet Russia. Many of them participated in the war in Chechnya; and, finally, Chechen terrorism itself started to influence them.

Violence and anti-establishment feelings had begun to coalesce in the minds of a considerable number of Russian youth by the beginning of Putin's tenure. Still, at that time, they attacked mostly the minorities - swarthy-looking migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the end of Putin's eight-year tenure, minorities had become increasingly associated with the oppressive elite - with the state and even the Orthodox Church seen as the major ideological props of an essentially anti-Russian regime. This was evident during the ethnic violence in Kondopoga in the Republic of Karelia in 2006, which started when two ethnic Russians were killed and several others badly injured by Chechens. Groups of ethnic Russian youths - many traveling from Moscow - rioted, demanding that the local government forcibly resettle all people from the Caucasus, especially ethnic Chechens, from the town.

Those who participated in the riots and who engaged in discussions on the Internet proclaimed openly that the Moscow regime represented both minorities and the rich - rolled into one body alien to Russians - and that it should be destroyed by force. They proposed creating underground organizations and mustering arms to engage in armed struggle against the regime. It has been estimated by the Moscow Anti-Fascist Center that more than 40 nationalist extremist groups operate in Russia. According to the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, reported racist attacks have risen fourfold in the past five years, with close to 300 in 2009, which included 122 deaths. Many attacks go unreported as they involve illegal migrant workers.

As economic woes continue in Russia and avenues for social advancement remain closed, one can expect the number of attacks to increase. Moreover, in the process of their ideological evolution, extremist nationalists could see the Russian state as the ultimate evil and grudgingly accept even their ex-enemies, jihadis, as at least temporary allies in fighting the common arch enemy. At that point, ideological differences could be ignored.

This is not to say that Russia is on the brink of a new wave of mass-scale extremist terror/violence. Indeed, since the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004 in which at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children, no major terrorist attack has been recorded in Russia. The Nevsky Express blast, though, for which both jihadis and Russian extremist nationalists claimed responsibility, is a warning of the possibility of the most unexpected alliances. And not just in Russia, but the world over.

20. Jan. 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.