Playing with matches

The ethnic riots in Biryulyovo last week turned out to be an X-ray of Russian politics as a whole. What became as a simple murder soon became a serious demonstration that triggered a messy and precipitous reaction showcasing the inability of the Russia police to act in such situations. Then we got a glimpse on the shadowy ownership issues of the vegetable warehouse, attacked by protesters, and theories claiming that the protests, or even the murder, had been made up to ensure the expropriation of the warehouse by people close to the present Mayor of Moscow. Then we got a response from the authorities – a deafening silence, that is – and from Alexei Navalny: a reassertion of the shrill nationalism he had displayed many times before. The sheer wave of comments that followed signals that Biryulyovo deserves its own page in the Russian political almanac of 2013.

Cutting into Russia

The Biryulyovo riots were just one of such events that, according to the Sova research centre – quoted here by Brian Whitmore – occur from time to time all over Russia. Thus, many of the commentators were trying to decipher whether fueling nationalism was ultimately useful for the regime, beyond the obvious economic gains of a certain power group (on which Sean Guillory posted a great piece). Well, anti-migrant nationalism certainly is useful for the regime inasmuch as it allows the authorities to point at an enemy that is both internal and external. As David Satter pointed out rightly in the aforementioned podcast, as a consequence of the Chechen wars and especially the terrorist attacks entailed by these wars, Russians have developed such an enmity towards migrants that they do not actually consider them fellow citizens – just as they do not consider Central Asian guest workers as such. In this sense, the “enemy” is external. However, people who are most prone to be taken by nationalist fervour are those living in communities frustrated by a constant friction between ethnic Russians and migrants. In this sense, the “enemy” is internal. And as I have pointed out earlier, long established, ailing autocracies do not like internal enemies, as their mere existence reminds people of the failures of institutions. Indeed, calculating the trade-off here is quite tricky.

The Biryulyovo riots revealed an institutional crisis on many levels. Evgeny Varshaver on delved into the depths of the conflict and made an important point. Migrants live and work in places like Biryulyovo, therefore have their own established social network, while “locals”, working and going out in Moscow do not. Therefore, they do not only feel intimidated in their own suburb, but they also lack local institutions – formal or informal – to solve problems and mitigate tensions.

But the problem is manifold. Locals do not only lack local institutions. They do not trust in formal regional or national institutions either. They cannot be blamed for this: mentioning the corruption and injustice inherent in Russian institutions would be a commonplace. We should add that the informal institutions they see and experience every day are exactly the ones like “krysha”.

The consequence is the only substitute they know for formal institutions: riots.

Informal “institutions” like krysha and the perceived inaction of the authorities when they are expected to protect ethnic Russian citizens are indeed dangerous, because they are instances when a power machine shows its sheer, cynical, ugly face. The uprisings of the Arab Spring were rooted exactly in such events, and it is not a coincidence that in other autocratic regimes, even in ones with far stronger institutional structures – like Azerbaijan – leaders have put a special emphasis on personally reprimanding local tyrants once things started to get nasty.

If the answer of the institutions, however, signals further incapability or unwillingness to deal with the problem, they will only make the situation much worse. Mark Galeotti had an insightful piece on the reaction of the Russian police. Later on, others added that despite all the nervousness and hastiness that characterised the response of the authorities, the crackdown itself was much less powerful than a year ago at Bolotnaya Square when the police came down hard on opposition protesters. Indeed, inadequate, insufficient or exaggerated action from the part of the authorities will seemingly bear testimony to any conspiracy theory or at least, mistrust in formal institutions and will thereby give further legitimacy to nationalist hatred and rioting, in the eyes of the protesters. This is exactly what happened in 2006 in Hungary, where the incompetent reactions of the police to successive riots considerably helped the opposition to arouse and right-wing extremism and put it to use.

But, as Andrei Kolesnikov reminded the readers of Vedomosti last week, there is no such thing as managed nationalism. Therefore, in short, the authorities have significantly more to lose by fueling ethnic hatred than they have to win on it.

I believe that the Russian elite is perplexed by the present situation. The messy and nervous reaction to the riots (readiness in Moscow was raised to a level of alert unprecedented since the 2010 Moscow terror attacks), the silence of Putin, the low-key reaction of Sergei Sobyanin all point at this. I have no doubt that the regime will try to use the situation the best way it can: Duma deputies will draft legislation restricting immigration, migration or even the freedom of assembly (as they have already done it).

Nevertheless, apparently, many seem to be trapped in the reflexes they have adopted in the early 2000s, back when pointing at internal enemies paid off much better than now, and are unaware of the dangers inherent in a less lukewarm nationalism than Putin’s. This may be a major mistake, especially now that this other kind of nationalism has a credible face: Alexei Navalny.

Navalny’s gamble

Navalny’s response to the riots was bluntly nationalist and at some points, outright racist. Not that he does not see the real root of the problems: he also blogged about the necessity of a thorough judicial reform in order to solve the issue. Nevertheless, if he does not provide short-term solutions, “painkillers”, he risks losing his appeal in the eyes of a considerable group of disgruntled Russians. Navalny rightly feels that these cases may become the necessary impulse needed to kick the Russian society out of the “state of patience” with the regime and push public mood further downhill. Moreover, he can credibly be more nationalistic, more eloquent and certainly more convincing than the authorities in addressing these problems.

The problem is that he cannot be sure whether this is the right problem to address.

Nationalists or quasi-nationalists make up only a part of the opposition. Russians are disgruntled for many reasons. Biryulyovo residents are disappointed in the authorities because they feel that their rights come secondary to shady business dealings of local bigwigs. They also feel frustrated living in a community that they feel hostile. But they have little in common with many of the Bolotnaya Square protesters that want honest elections or freedom to enjoy and increase their middle-class wealth. Nor do they share the woes of the residents of Pikalyovo that, similarly to Biryulyovo, made the headlines in 2009 as the example of ailing “monogorods”, or single-industry towns. And these latter have only scant common ground with the socially deprived, remote Far East regions facing an ever-increasing demographic pressure from China.

What is an opposition politician to do if he is to play for Biryulyovo, Pikalyovo, Bolotnaya and Vladivostok at the same time?

I discussed this situation with Mark Galeotti on his blog last week, and we both agreed that Navalny was at crossroads. As I have blogged before, in order to win the prize he has set his eyes upon, he must have a broad support among voters and he has to find supporters in (at least) the business elite. Choosing to be a nationalist may work for now and will certainly resonate better with the elite. But it does not necessarily win him the support of the voters he needs, and will certainly not earn him friends abroad. Choosing to be the anti-corruption crusader he has been will resonate well with disgruntled voters of all ilk, however, it is unlikely to get him supporters among the politically connected business elite, something that he will need if he aims high.

This is Navalny’s Catch-22. He will need considerable political talent to solve the jigsaw and synergise all these seemingly contradicting opportunities and energies. It will require much more than his controversial and embarrassing reaction to the Biryulyovo riots.

Stakes are high. If he does not manage to pull off the creation of a “civil nationalism” or something similar, he may unintentionally help to strengthen the legitimacy of the regime. As a column in Nezavisimaya Gazeta underlined last week, the new verdict in Navalny’s case – the suspension of his prison sentence – allows the regime to exploit Navalny’s ideas fairly safely. Whatever he is coming up with in public, the authorities have the means to turn into their own slogan. If things got out of hand, he can always be put in jail. Of course, this would require such a subtlety and political sense that nervous and shaky constructions like the Russian political elite lack.

The Biryulyovo riots revealed opportunities and dangers both for the authorities and the opposition. The worrisome thing is that neither of them seems to quite know what to do, while neither of them has the means to control it, either.

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