[There is a great danger that forces which are unfriendly to the US/Russian reset will take advantage of the situation and unleash forces that no "conflict manager" could keep under control.]
As Russia prepares to see in the New Year, an ominous shadow has been cast over Moscow and the rest of the country in the form of race riots and ethnic tensions.
These troubles, while sparked by a specific incident – a street brawl between young Muscovites and Caucasus natives that led to the death of a Spartak football fan – can be seen as having their roots not only in the legacy of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, but also in policies that have tended to heighten ethnic tensions rather than defuse them.
After the race riot by thousands of nationalists on Manezh Square, where OMON riot police were at first reluctant to break up the protests, there are two worrying trends developing.
The first is the prospect of non-Slavic people in Moscow and throughout Russia being used as scapegoats. In a huge multi-ethnic country such as Russia, large-scale ethnic violence would be a recipe for the de-stabilisation of society as a whole.
With a high oil price and large foreign currency reserves, Russia has so far escaped the worst of the European Union’s debt and recession problems. But if the global economy takes a further hit in 2011, nationalist politicians in Moscow could try to use a new crisis to blame economic woes on “foreigners” or “migrants” – even though millions of non-ethnic Russians living and working here are Russian citizens.
Ethnic tensions could also be used in the run-up to the 2011 State Duma elections and 2012 presidential election to whip up a nationalist backlash – another development that, while it may seem attractive to some spin-doctors in Moscow, could stoke up huge problems in future.
The authorities have tried to stem the upsurge of frustration from the country’s young people in particular, many of whom feel marginalised in an often-brutal, corrupt society. But the official attempts to harness young people’s political energies into nationalist, pro-Kremlin groups such as Nashi and Molodaya Gvardia have clearly backfired – letting an uncontrollable racist genie out of the bottle.
The biggest danger in the current situation, however, could lie in a different direction. If the nationalist protests and riots are used opportunistically to introduce further crackdowns on any form of dissent, from whatever quarter, it could eventually provoke a general protest movement of even greater proportions.