The North Caucasus is a seething with tension in recent weeks. One area where ethnic tensions are rapidly escalating is in Pugachev. Below is part one of Sasha de Vogel’s investigation into what’s causing the tensions in the town. Part two of her investigation erosion of faith in the State is driving the protests at least as much as ethnic tensions are.
Last week in Pugachev, a city of 40,000 in Saratov Oblast (map), a 16-year-old Chechen boy stabbed a 20-year-old former paratrooper in a disagreement over a girl. The victim, who was half-Tatar and half-Russian, died of his wounds on last Sunday. The Chechen teen, who had been in Pugachev visiting family, was apprehended by police the same day and confessed to the crime.
It seemed an open-and-shut case, but that night, ethnic tensions reached a boiling point. A crowd of about 100 marched to the city’s Chechen neighborhood to call for the expulsion of migrants from the North Caucasus. The next day, the mob swelled to 600, blocking highways and major roads. The following day, major police forces were deployed to confine the protests to a central square and form a human shield to prevent the obstruction of the highway and railways, and a week-long moratorium on the sale of alcohol was implemented (read “Dry Law” Passed in Protesting Pugachev). Negotiations between the protesters and the deputy governor of Saratov Region, Denis Fadeyev, made little progress, reportedly because people had little trust in the process. Speaker of the Saratov Regional Parliament Vladimir Kapkayev, Governor Stanislav Sidorov, and Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy Mikhail Babich—whose presence indicates that Vladimir Putin is aware of this issue—have all been actively dealing with the situation, while the head of Pugachev’s police force, Igor Lopatkin, has been fired. Members of nationalist groups have also been detained en route to the small city (for a timeline of events click here). There are an estimated 80 Chechen families living in Pugachev.
If this seems like a baffling response to a tragic-yet-not-overly-complex crime, that’s because the Pugachev rebellion, as the Russian media has called it, can only be understood in the broader context of the Russian migration regime and of how the government addresses citizens’ demands.
Migration and Ethnic Tension
Ethnic tensions have been rising in the last decade, as Russia has increasingly been represented as an ethnic-national state and as migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus have moved to large and medium-sized cities, lured by a strong economy. Predictably, migrants are criticized for failing to communicate in Russian and for not adopting Russian cultural norms. Uncontrolled migration bears a high economic price, as low-cost and often illegal labor distorts the labor market, depressing wages and decreasing tax revenue while creating an impoverished population reliant on state services (see also Sergei Guriev and Oleg Tsyvinski on the economic impact of migration). Low-cost migrant laborers appear to take jobs from locals, exacerbating tensions. In December 2012, Putin warned against the development of national-ethnic enclaves that operate as “their own informal jurisdiction,” where migrants are more likely to commit crimes from bribery to drug trafficking, and to embrace radical ideologies like Islamism. In a recent survey, 71% of Russians felt ethnic conflict within Russia was a threat to security. In a recent poll, 85% of Russians were in favor of a stricter visa regime for migrants from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Similar anxiety has been directed at internal migrants, particularly from war-torn Chechnya; 65% of those surveyed also wanted limits on the influx of internal migrants to their city or region.
Despite the high public concern over migration, the government has struggled to find an appropriate way to address the issue and the attendant ethnic tension. Putin has repeatedly condemned nationalism in public statements, but seems to send a different message with his promotion of the Orthodox Church and traditional Russian values, and has failed to quash nationalist groups. In May, the Duma adopted a few measures directed at the issue, but has not implemented a stricter visa regime. Meanwhile, public frustrations have continued to spill out in spontaneous violent episodes, like 2010 riot on Moscow’s Manezh Square and the Day of Rage protest this past April.
The state’s inability to cope with internal and CIS migration is harmful for migrants themselves, who have few legal protections for their rights and often face abuse, such as unpaid wages, poor working and living conditions, racial profiling, discrimination, and even hate crimes. At a loss to suppress nationalism, the state sometimes addresses the issue by persecuting migrants themselves. In Pugachev, authorities bowed to the demands of a violent, drunken crowd and checked the registration documents of the city’s Chechen population, detaining 13 of them (for a translation read 13 Natives of Chechnya Detained in Pugachev), though they had not been affiliated with the crime. Expecting an ineffectual police response, the Chechen community sent approximately 100 young men out of the city until the tensions cooled—hardly a sustainable tactic for coping with ethnic strife.
Without a coordinated, systematic response to ethnic tensions, migration and nationalism, situations like the one in Pugachev will continue to emerge apparently spontaneously, forcing authorities to respond in a reactionary, case-by-case fashion. They will also need to deal with the widespread negative attitude toward migrants from Chechnya, which is part of Russia and thus cannot be subject to a visa regime like the CIS countries, however popular the idea might be. It will also be necessary to find a new language beyond nationalist rhetoric and criminal stereotypes to frame migration issues, so that the process can be inclusive and mollify ethnic tensions. Addressing these issues head-on is essential for the future stability of the state and the government, as they will continue to be of major concern for the population.*
* It is interesting to note that opposition leader Alexei Navalny is an established nationalist and has repeatedly participated in the annual nationalist parade, Russian March. For Western observers, Navalny’s nationalism is an uncomfortable and therefore best-ignored blemish on an otherwise unimpeachable democratic reputation. While his participation in the March is commensurate with his own beliefs, it is also good political sense, as there is a clear and increasing public demand for a change in migration policy.