ACTON, MA -- So, you want a revolution?
Only recently, it seems, thoughts like these took place inside of a lot of idle minds, when a few half-stable regimes on Russia's western and southern periphery quivered and sank. Some were planning to continue this drive to revolt into Russia itself. Putin's regime was definitely afraid of the wave of revolutions, and was in disarray for a few months in early 2005. A flock of youth movements was quickly organized, similar to those playing key roles in the "color revolutions" in the post-Soviet world. They didn't catch on, though. An average Russian, even among Moscow's intelligentsia, can hardly name even one of those youth movements, or recall any of their political agendas or actions.
But now, it seems, we have a new anti-establishment player in Russian politics. It is networked, media-savvy, and has many young followers -- the qualities that were instrumental in previous "color revolutions." It is active in the "real world," and in many regions, not just in Moscow clubs and conference-halls. Previously only Limonov's National Bolshevik Party could fit this description. But the NBP is too vague in its agenda, and is split now into rival factions.
The new student-activist organization is far more focused. It is also quite different one from those like Serbia's "Otpor," Georgia's "Kmara," Ukraine's "Pora," or their hapless Russian version, "Oborona." This new important player in Russian politics is DPNI -- the "Movement Against Illegal Immigration." It is not large, and does not have powerful backers or well-known celebrities in its roster. It is often dismissed as a xenophobic fringe and a one-note band. And yet, despite its numerical insignificance, it has more real impact than the other various "youth movements," "think tanks," and other creatures of the Russian political zoo. The DPNI was instrumental in spreading information, organizing crowds, and in formulating demands to the authorities in many recent incidents involving inter-ethnic conflicts. In the last few days, after a violent intra-ethnic brawl in Kandopoga, Karelia in which three local men died in a fight with Caucasian newcomers, the organization hit the front pages big-time.
The summer that just ended was, on the whole, a lazy one by Russian political standards. The ruling regime is well-established, without any serious challenges on the political front, at home or abroad. The "color revolutions" of 2003-4 have long lost their drive. Ukraine descended into a silly stalemate/circus. Victor Yanukovich, the representative of the Russian-speaking eastern part, whose defeat during the "Orange Revolution" was considered a huge humiliation for Putin, is back in the prime minister's seat, with the largest faction in the parliament. Putin triumphantly concluded the G-8 summit, with all his detractors embarrassingly running out of steam.
And yet the, as is usually the case in recent Russian history, August brought new troubles. First, a spate of air crashes highlighted the lousy state of aviation safety today. The first crash happened earlier, in July, in Siberian city of Irkutsk, when an arriving plane suddenly accelerated and overshot a runway and smashed into a building. On August 21, a Tu-154 with 170 people aboard flew into a violent storm over eastern Ukraine and spun out of control, gyrating helplessly downward to its doom.
One day before the Tu-154 crashed into a rain-soaked field near Donetsk, an explosion occurred in the Cherkizovsky market in Moscow, killing 10-plus people. Cherkizovsky has the reputation of one of the messiest, most unruly and criminalized markets in Moscow. It sells everything -- from counterfeit jeans to pirated tapes to fruits and veggies of dubious quality. The explosion occurred in a small cafe in a "Vietnamese" section of the market. At first everybody assumed it was a typical criminal "razborka" that went bad. But the inept perpetrators were quickly caught. They turned out to be young Russian students, driven by hatred towards foreigners. Chemistry students making bombs -- something that didn't bode well 100 years ago in tsarist Russia (see under "Tsar Alexander II, Assassination Of...").
The rising tide of nationalism and ethnic tension is a popular political subject today. When it comes to ethnic tension in Russia, the western and liberal media have only one version applicable to all such cases, without any exception: Russians are always to blame, period. In every conflict involving ethnic relations, no matter who started or who was the victim, it's "xenophobic attitudes" by Russians, "mobs of skinheads" allegedly manipulated by authorities, that are behind it all. One can hardly find any mention of criminal violence perpetrated by Tajik, Azeri, or Chechen immigrants (of which there is plenty), but whenever a dark-skinned immigrant is knifed or beaten on Russian streets, the story gets flogged and replayed over and over as proof of evil Russian chauvinism.
The liberal media is not the only one out of whack. A huge howl quickly spreads throughout Russian "patriotic" papers and blogs, endlessly chewing on the "Russia for Russians" chow, whenever a murder or rape is blamed on "black-assed barbarians". Needless to say, Moscovites aren't too eager to sweep the streets and haul cement on construction sites, where hundreds of thousands of southern arrivistes are employed. But plenty of locals don't want any "darkies" in their vicinity.
Moscow is used to Chechen terrorism -- from relatively small explosions in mid-90's (and plenty of criminal violence) to a series of bomb blasts in 1999, which triggered Putin's ascendance with "tough on terrorism" image. Then there was the terrible siege in the Dubrovka theater in 2002 and several explosions by "black widows" (Chechen female suicide bombers) in various public places. But now suddenly the terror acts by various Russian marginal groups and "Russian fascism" is the talk of the day. It certainly has some foundation, though much overblown by the media.
Last January there was an attack in a large Moscow synagogue. A young man, Alexander Koptsev, entered the synagogue hiding a large kitchen knife and began to attack randomly everybody around. He wounded nine attendees, most of them slightly, before being overpowered. He appeared to be a typical socially disadvantaged youth, without much education or a good steady job. He wasn't active among the various neo-Nazi groupings, but had at his home some anti-Semitic brochures (easily obtained on the streets of Moscow) and computer files. After a speedy trial, Koptsev was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Yet anti-Semitic violence is fairly rare in Russia -- Koptsev's case (ending without any fatalities) was the worst in many years. Far more problematic is the violence between locals and various ethnic diasporas from the Caucasus or Central Asia. It is getting worse, as more immigrants are coming in, driven by economic opportunities of recent years.
In early August a stand-off between a Dagestani mob and locals occurred in the southern town of Salsk, in the Stavropol region. One local was killed, and the town exploded with rage when a Dagestani suspect in murder was quickly released from custody.
A few days ago a larger disturbance occurred in the small city of Kandapoga near the Finnish border, which started out as a small brawl between locals and Chechen immigrants. What happened was something like the following. A company of locals (probably drunk) were in a bar belonging to some Chechens (probably mafiosi), talking loudly. A Chechen barman tried to calm them down, a verbal altercation ensued, and then a physical one. The barmen ran out and brought help -- a dozen Chechen toughs armed with knives and iron bars. The Chechens reportedly started to attack everybody in sight -- mostly people unrelated to the original brawl. They killed two people, and one more died later in a hospital. After the funeral a large mob of locals (ie: ethnic Russians) gathered near the "Chaika" restaurant where the first fight occurred, and burned it down. They also trashed the local market and a few stores belonging to Caucasian traders. Only then did the police arrest several suspects in the murders, as well as about a hundred of the rioting mob.
The local authorities tried to play down the whole thing. It was the DPNI that helped spread the news, organize an informal town meeting, and keep nationalistic websites and blogs all over Russia in frenzied state (and it shows no signs of abating). The DPNI did this in most other recent conflicts of ethnic Russians with immigrants from the south, getting a lot of experience and a growing following in the process.
So a curious thing happened. The "color revolutions" were driven by organizations often with an explicitly nationalistic agenda, which, in case of the former Soviet "near abroad," were mostly anti-Russian in nature, masked by western liberal rhetoric to gain western backing. But it is hard to imagine a Russian "color revolution" with a similar, anti-Russian, bent. What is more likely and natural in Russia is an organization like DPNI. It can also be viewed in fact as "national liberation" of a sort, with a narrow, nationalistic agenda.
Of course, this is not quite what the liberal and the western media had in mind when they imagined a new opposition to the Putin regime. More unimaginable consequences are yet to come.