On New Year’s Eve, Vladimir Tor, the controversial leader of the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration, walked up to the Marshal Zhukov memorial just off Red Square.
He had a scheduled meeting, he says, with Moscow’s chief police spokesman, Viktor Biryukov, about how to coordinate a nationalist rally that day on Red Square. Both he and Biryukov, he said, wanted to ensure that there would neither be any Koran-burning nor aggressive dancing by Caucasus natives – rumours of both were viciously circulating in the Internet in wake of violent racist unrest in December.
Instead Tor, whose real name is Vladlen Kralin, was arrested – swept up in the New Year’s raids on a motley array of oppositionists from Strategy 31’s Ilya Yashin to National Bolshevik Eduard Limonov. He spent the New Year in prison, where he spent 10 days.
Tor has been in contact with the police for years, he told The Moscow News, and was baffled by his arrest.
And just a day after being released, Tor was detained again on January 11, incarcerated for attending a small rally that was announced on various blogs by a shadowy group calling itself the December 11 Movement. This time, police preempted any mass gathering, detaining some 150 people arriving at Manezh Square before any protest rally could really begin.
Tor’s Movement Against Illegal Migration, or DPNI by its Russian acronym, and other nationalist groups have distanced themselves from the December 11 Movement.
“There is no movement, in the sense that it has no leadership, no ideology,” said Konstantin Krylov, head of the Russian Public Movement, a pro-nationalist group. Prior to his arrest, Tor told The Moscow News that DPNI does not officially support the December 11 movement either, but that some of its members were likely to show up.
Reining in the nationalists
Amid the ongoing threat of riots, the incidents with Tor highlights the government’s carrot-and-stick struggle to rein in – whether by arrests and coercion or through negotiation and infiltration – possibly one of the most threatening opposition movements in modern Russia.
But rather than promoting the Frankenstein’s Monster of nationalism, as some experts have alleged, last month’s response to violent unrest has appeared to show a government largely unprepared to face a grassroots movement that it has never really controlled in the first place.
It has certainly tried.
“Of course, young people, young activists are in the so-called risk group for infiltration by security organs who want to prevent nationalist movements from growing,” Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist who has studied both Russian security structures and youth movements, told The Moscow News.
But in the fragmented nationalist camp – where groups range from the relatively less hard-line DPNI to virulently anti-Semitic groups such as Narodnoye Opolcheniye and Slavyansky Soyuz – that has bred an atmosphere of paranoia where many suspect each other of being agent provocateurs on the Federal Security Service’s payroll.
“You really can’t tell who’s a provocateur and who’s an oppositionist anymore,” Viktor Militaryov, an expert with the Institute for National Strategy (and a nationalist sympathiser) told The Moscow News.
But there is also a far more legitimate form of contact, through regular interaction that seems to be welcome both by police and some nationalist leaders. That may be why police initially stood by and allowed football fans to chant nationalist slogans in December – aggressive and often armed with baseball bats, these are not the docile liberal protestors police are accustomed to dispersing.
Vladimir Tor, who has been organising Russian Marches every November 4, describes negotiation with police as a necessity.
“We have periodical meetings and consultations,” he said. “Although we are on different sides of the barricades, there should be some sort of cooperation and diplomacy. Because so many people are involved, it’s necessary to negotiate how to conduct such rallies lawfully.”
This time around, however, with rioting apparently out of the control of either DPNI or the more radical groups, the negotiation process is breaking down.
With up to 15,000 people gathering on Manezh Square on December 11 in a riot sparked by the shooting of Spartak fan Yegor Sviridov, the nationalists themselves didn’t know how to respond.
Judging by their behavior, police are even more confused, activists say.
“In 2006, they understood what was going on. But now they do not,” said Krylov, of the Russian Public Movement. He was talking about a similar – though far more manageable – wave of nationalist activity that started a year and a half before the last presidential elections.
“Now, they honestly believe that it’s all because some [political force] is trying to rock the boat. They still think it’s some evil provocation, except they don’t understand where it’s coming from. Activists questioned by law enforcement have been asked, ‘who can we pay to make them stop this?’”
One reason the nationalists are so hard to rein in is because they have become so fragmented, says Yegor Kholmogorov, a pro-Kremlin analyst.
“There is a whole new generation of ‘network’ nationalists, who function and organize over the Internet,” he told The Moscow News. “You cannot negotiate with them, and you cannot understand what is going on in their heads.”
Some experts point to evidence that the presidential administration tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to co-opt and work with moderate nationalists – both to assuage the threat and to further its own ideological agenda.
“Initially, DPNI positioned itself as something of a volunteer organization to help police with illegal immigration,” Kholmogorov said.
“[Kremlin deputy chief of staff] Vladislav Surkov was one of the godfathers of the 2005 Russian March. Everyone understood that this rally could not have taken place without the blessing of the presidential administration.”
But then members of DPNI not only started declaring outright anti-Semitic and aggressive nationalist slogans, Kholmogorov and Militaryov said, they also publicly insulted Surkov.
Since then, even if there were any overtures from the Kremlin to begin with, they were all cut off.
“There was a proposal to form a public council consisting of nationalist groups like DPNI and Slavyansky Soyuz that would work with Moscow police,” former DPNI leader Alexander Belov told The Moscow News. “But it was prevented, I believe on orders from the presidential administration.”
Instead, Belov said, police were told to cooperate with the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group – which has also sometimes demonstrated nationalist leanings.
Among the government’s more hard-line responses to the December unrest was the sudden re-arrest of military intelligence officer Vladimir Kvachkov, who was recently acquitted by a jury trial of trying to assassinate 1990s privatisation chief Anatoly Chubais in 2005.
Kvachkov, who heads the ultranationalist Narodnoye Opolcheniye, is now being accused of trying to stage an armed coup.
But other nationalists – particularly in DPNI – are wary of the GRU colonel, who has been a vocal participant of Russian Marches ever since being released from prison over the Chubais case.
At worst, he could be a provocateur, they say – and at best an easy target.
Kholmogorov believes that while Kvachkov may be perfectly sincere, he could also be used as a way to trap other nationalists.
“It’s unlikely that he’s to blame for organising the unrest, but his arrest is part of an attempt to catch nationalists on the hook, to force everyone to start fighting for his release,” he said, adding that supporters would be easier to apprehend and punish.
Indeed, Kvachkov’s release was one of the demands made at the Jan. 11 rally – and served as a pretext to arrest participants. “It turned out to be a trap,” Kholmogorov said of the Jan. 11 protest.