Russian Riots Charged with Racial Bias, Political Overtones

Stratfor institute for Global Intelligence

Protests in the Biryulyov neighborhood, on Moscow’s southern fringes, were apparently triggered by the fatal stabbing of a 25-year-old, Yegor Shcherbakov. Police have described the alleged attacker – captured on grainy CCTV footage – as "not a Russian citizen." Russian media, meanwhile, have described him as a migrant.

Labor migrants [who are predominantly Muslim] in Russia number in the millions, and have become a focus of public discontent and divisive political rhetoric.

RIA Novosti reported that  Russian police detained 1,200 people in Moscow at a vegetable warehouse targeted by anti-migrant rioters during violent clashes in the area the night before. During demonstrations in Biryulyov, protesters called on police to detain the suspect in Shcherbakov’s murder and tighten migration laws, according to local media reports.

By the next day, the crowd turned violent, when a group of young men began smashing windows in a shopping centre and briefly set it on fire. A video posted on Youtube showed them chanting "White Power!" as they forced their way in, attacking police and local businesses, including the vegetable warehouse. Helicopters and over a thousand police officers were dispatched to Biryulyov. Observers cite that the peaceful protest may have been targeted by political instigators who seized an opportunity to ignite an already volatile situation.

Police called the latest round of arrests “preventative,” saying they would check the thousand-plus people taken into custody “for involvement in criminal activity.”

Preliminary reports suggested that the initial detentions targeted people, mostly migrant Muslims,who worked at the vegetable warehouse which had come under attack the previous day, while the earlier detentions focused on those taking part in the weekend’s violence. Russia's top investigative agency said it was looking into the killing. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of President Putin, called for a thorough investigation and said those behind riots must also be held responsible for their actions.


The rioting in Biryulyov was the worst outbreak of unrest over a racially-charged incident in Moscow since December 2010, when several thousand youths rioted just outside the Kremlin.

While Russia's overall population is dropping, the number of Muslims in the country is on the rise. The population of indigenous Muslims, mainly hailing from the Russian Caucasus, in Russia has risen since the fall of the Soviet Union, including a 69 percent increase in Dagestanis, a 50 percent increase in Chechens and a 100 percent increase in Ingush. Similarly, the number of Muslim immigrants is also rising. According to official state data, some 240,000 immigrants enter Russia annually — Russia's Center for Migration Studies puts this number at more than 400,000 after accounting for illegal immigration. Federal Migration Service head Konstantin Romodanovsky has said 3 million immigrants work illegally in Russia every year.

Increased anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has accompanied these demographic changes. The opinion research center poll in January suggested that 55 percent of Russians reported feelings of enmity toward other ethnicities, and 63 percent believed that Russians should have more rights than other ethnicities.

The Russian government faces several problems with tensions stemming from these demographic trends. Early in his tenure, Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited ethnic Russian xenophobia of the Muslim populations. But now that the Muslim populations have become larger and have moved from the borderlands into Russia's interior, the Kremlin is having more difficulty balancing the interests of all its constituencies. In the lead-up to the 2011 elections, Russia saw protests of more than 100,000 in the streets of Moscow calling for immigration reform and a cessation of government subsidization for the Russian Muslim republics.

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