Russian Police Cracked Down Harder on Opposition Protesters Than Nationalists

At most, three nationalists in recent clashes face criminal charges, while 28 opposition activists were charged in the May 2012 Bolotnaya protest, with one already sentenced to forced psychiatric treatment.
Riot police detain a man during a protest against the verdict of a court in Kirov, which sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

MOSCOW – In Russia, all riots are apparently not created equal.

Nationalists clashed with police in Moscow on October 13. They smashed windows, overturned cars, and ransacked a vegetable-storage depot as they searched for a migrant worker who they believed had killed a Russian. Investigators called their crime "hooliganism." 

On May 6, 2012, opposition protesters clashed with police on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in an anti-Kremlin rally on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration. Many were charged with "participating in a riot," "inciting mass unrest," and "attacking police."

At most, three nationalists face criminal charges—and possible seven-year sentences—over the October 13 riot in Moscow's Biryulyovo district. By contrast, 28 opposition activists were charged in the May 2012 Bolotnaya case, with some facing up to 13 years in prison—and one already sentenced to forced psychiatric treatment. When Biryulyovo protesters complained about heavy-handed police tactics, authorities sacked two senior officersIn the wake of the Bolotnaya violence in May 2012, which protesters say was provoked by police, several officers were given apartments and decorated with awards.

These are just some of the discrepancies in the Kremlin’s handling of two important mass protests in Russia. Analysts say the reason for the government's relatively gentle, conciliatory tone in the wake of Biryulyovo shows that officials fear the nationalists much more than the opposition street movement, catalyzed by young, middle-class Muscovites, or "hipsters." "The hipsters [on Bolotnaya Square] who were making fun of the authorities were not prepared to take on the riot police," says Pavel Salin, a Moscow-based political analyst. "The people who came out in Biryulyovo were prepared to enter into conflict with law enforcement. The authorities understand this and [they] really fear this kind of protest."

The most recent spate of unrest erupted in the capital over the weekend after a young ethnic Russian was killed the previous week. Authorities have since detained an Azerbaijani man in connection with the killing. Since October 13, in an apparent bid to placate nationalist sentiment, police have arrested over 1,200 migrant workers. According to eyewitness accounts, they continue to make random arrests of Central Asians across the city.

On October 16, the police apprehended the murder suspect—Orkhan Zeynalov—in Kolomna, a small town outside Moscow. The showy arrest, involving members of an elite riot-police unit, resembled something from a Hollywood movie and was even captured on video.

The police then flew Zeynalov back to Moscow in a helicopter—another rare and showy measure. And yet the violence is not over. On October 15, the body of an Uzbek citizen was found with stab wounds in Biryulyovo. On the same night, hundreds of nationalists, some reportedly seen with weapons such as stun guns, were detained by police at protests.

The public disturbances come just as nationalists prepare to hold their annual “Russian March” on November 4.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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