Vladimir Putin utilized nationalist fervor in Russia to consolidate his personal authority and strengthen the country's statehood following the Soviet collapse. But now the Kremlin may be finding that nationalism is a double-edged blade, a weapon that, all of a sudden, is threatening to subsume Russia's identity as a multi-ethnic state.
Ten days after hundreds of nationalist thugs rioted in central Moscow, attacking non-Russians from Central Asia and the Caucasus while voicing chauvinist slogans, the Russian capital remains on edge, and Putin's government continues to struggle to keep racist and xenophobic sentiments in check.
Law-enforcement personnel have made over 2,000 pre-emptive arrests of suspected nationalist agitators and other undesirables in recent days, in effect striving to deprive the nationalist fire of oxygen. While December 18-19 did not witness the renewal of large-scale rioting in Moscow, isolated incidents were reported in some cities and towns near the Russian capital. Many observers in Moscow expect inter-ethnic tension to remain at the boiling point in the coming weeks.
Putin cemented his control of the Kremlin by enforcing a shared sense of patriotism, blended with wariness of the West. His government helped foster nationalist passion through the creation of such organizations as the Nashi youth group. Yet in the wake of the December 11 troubles, the Kremlin has had to abruptly change course: after years of denigrating liberals and harassing those who voiced policy differences with the government, the spasm of nationalist-inspired violence is forcing Russian leaders into the awkward role of advocates of tolerance.
The December 18-19 roundup of suspected hooligans came after President Dmitry Medvedev ordered tighter security measures and called for a zero-tolerance policy regarding unsanctioned rallies and ethnic hate. "Russia has come to be a strong state, with the largest territory and a powerful economy solely due to the unity and solidarity of its multi-national people," Medvedev said on December 17. "Hence our reaction to any ethnic intolerance ... will be absolutely unequivocal."
Putin chimed in during his annual television appearance in which he takes phone-in questions from citizens. "We are all children of one motherland," he said.
Yulia Latynina, who hosts a political talk show on the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, suggested that the Russian government may have shot itself in the foot by relying on nationalist sentiments for support.
"It is clear that in reality [the protests] are not the end. It is just the first stop. And at the end of the way lies the collapse of the state," Latynina said December 18.
Most alarming for the Kremlin, the recent protests drew supporters of not only banned extremist groups, such as Russki Obraz, but also members of the Kremlin-sponsored Nashi movement.
There are indications that the explosion of nationalist fervor on December 11 caught Kremlin officials off-guard. Photojournalist and blogger Ilya Varlamov, who was at the scene, queried why law enforcement personnel, who had been tipped off about the December 11 protest three days prior to the event, were so heavily outnumbered and little to interfere with the mob that brutally attacked people of non-Slavic appearance.
"Nothing had been done to prevent the chaos," Varlamov wrote in his blog. "Street vendors were selling beer in glass bottles, which were later used to attack the police."
Dozens were injured on December 11 and one person, a native of Kyrgyzstan, was killed that night. Hours later, Medvedev, seemingly outraged by the extent to which the chaos was allowed to unravel at the Kremlin doorsteps, sent a message via Twitter. "We will deal with everyone who did filthy things. With everyone. Have no doubts about it," he assured.
Galina Kozhevnikova, an expert at the racism watchdog group Sova Center, said it is no wonder that the December 11 protest morphed into a scene right out of Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, with its 'two minutes' hate' rituals. Authorities have steadily encouraged nationalism without doing anything to check its dangerous features, she said. "Russian society is sick," Kozhevnikova said. "The existence of racism and xenophobia has been dismissed, and at times even endorsed, for too long."
Illustrating the challenge now facing the Kremlin, a phone-in conducted by the Russian News Service radio station showed 87 percent of the listeners supported the protestors' sentiments. And an opinion poll held in 2007 by the Levada Center revealed that 55 percent of those surveyed agreed with the notion of "Russia for Russians."
Asked what he thought of such poll results, Akhmed Azimov, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Russian Congress of the Caucasus People, dismissed them as "surface-deep," saying the public had been brainwashed by xenophobic propaganda. But he did admit that there were reasons to be concerned.
"The [Caucasus] diasporas have shared fears that the ultra-nationalists could one day take over," Azimov told EurasiaNet.org.
There would appear to be clear-cut social and economic consequences for the Kremlin, if nationalist passion continues to rise. In a country that is in the midst of a demographic crisis, in which the country's population is experiencing an unprecedented decline, Russia can ill-afford to alienate its non-Russian citizens, who account for roughly 20 percent of the overall population.