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Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Two columns in yesterday's Moscow Times juxtaposed against each other show two Russians reaching the same destination by different routes: if Russia goes on as it is, all roads lead to ruin. Russia must retrace its steps before it is too late.


Three weeks have passed since the small Karelian town of Kondopoga was engulfed by ethnic violence, and passions are still running high. In fact, it's unlikely things will calm down much in the near future, since the authorities have not so much run into a blind alley as they have come to a fork in the road, with both options being bad.

Going with the flow of the decidedly anti-Chechen sentiment among the vast majority of the town's residents and kicking people from the Caucasus out of the city -- or rather not letting them return -- is clearly out of the question. This would not only be unfair and unconstitutional; it would also create an extremely dangerous precedent for the rest of the country. On the other hand, acting according to the law and helping the Caucasus natives return to the town could lead to an explosion.

The only alternative is to wait and see. Waiting until tempers calm down could be a long process. Things will not settle down in the short term, as Karelia is set to elect its regional parliament at the start of October, meaning that what happened in the town is likely to remain at the center of attention as a campaign issue.

The recent horrific case of the hazing of Private Andrey Sychov, after which both his legs and his genitals had to be amputated, at the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy brought to light a veritable avalanche of reports about similar cases across the country. Just the same, following the events in Kondopoga we have learaned about a slew of reports about other large-scale ethnic conflicts in Samara, Saratov, and elsewhere.

So we have to ask ourselves: Why did this happen in Kondopoga, a relatively quiet -- and prosperous, by the standards of Russia's regions -- town of 300,000 with a successful pulp-and-paper mill as its main business? Most of the residents are ethnic Russians, and the Chechens -- indeed, natives of the Caucasus in general -- are few. Some of these people have been living there for years, while others didn't arrive until after war broke out in Chechnya in 1994 and more have only just arrived. The long-time residents have long nurtured grievances about upstart newcomers, who, they say, show no desire to live by the rules of the local community.This was what ultimately led to the explosion. The conflict between the ethnic Russians and residents originally from the Caucasus in the local restaurant that sparked the wave of unrest was not the first incident.

But two factors played a part in it becoming the start of broader racial violence: the inaction of the local police, who did not step in to try to break things up until almost the very end; and the involvement of activists from the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, who came up from Moscow to fan the flames. Hot on their heels came commissars from pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, looking either to put out the flames or to indulge in some political point-scoring. Elections to the State Duma, after all, are just a year away.

But the conflict between locals and Chechens, police inaction and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration's activities are not unique to Kondapoga. These same conditions could combine in any place in the country at any time.

What did make this case unique was that in a town this size everyone knows each other, so the effect was like a detonation. In Moscow or Samara -- or even the Karelian capital, Petrozavodsk -- where communities are less close-knit, it would probably have turned out differently. In any case, Kondopoga was the first event. Only time will tell whether it will be the last.

Hastily conducted opinion polls show that almost one-third of Russians say that unrest similar to that in Kondopoga have happened where they live. In Moscow, 29 percent of respondents said they saw frequent ethnic clashes, while 43 percent said they happened rarely. In small towns like Kondopoga, the figures were significantly lower, at 4 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

The events in Karelia have placed the authorities in what is referred to in chess as a zugzwang, where every available move will leave the player in a weaker position. In addition, they have highlighted a very dangerous -- especially ahead of next year's elections -- and rapidly growing new force, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which looks to be committed to capitalizing on ethnically focused protest sentiment.


"We need a sober assessment of where we are to see our society as it really is, with all its possibilities and needs. That is what we need at the moment." Thus wrote Communist Party General Secretary Yury Andropov in the article "Studying Karl Marx and Some Questions of Socialist Construction," published in Kommunist magazine in 1983. I remember that, at the time, the progressive intelligentsia was asking itself whether Comrade Andropov really was a keen enemy of liberty or a closet liberal reformer. The new general secretary's frank admission that the party could get some things wrong lent significant strength in kitchen-table discussions to supporters of the position that he was a closet liberal. Only now do we know from memoirs and historical investigation that the article was, in fact, written for Leonid Brezhnev before he died, that the historic phrase was inserted by Politburo conservative Mikhail Suslov and polished by his colleague Konstantin Chernenko.

Many years have passed, but the same thought can be heard postulated in almost exactly the same way by political figures today. At a recent round table titled "The Sovereign State and Globalization -- Democracy and National Identity," presidential deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov said: "Only a people that has a complete idea of itself -- who we are, where we're going, and why we're going there -- can live and develop organically."

Taking this quotation along with Surkov's as milestones, the conclusion has to be that Russia has spent the time between going from who knows where to some place just as tough to find. It's clearly a peculiarity of the country's sovereign democratic development.

The more I ponder the concept of sovereign democracy, the more I come to look at it as a universal key to life in Russia. And the more I look, the more I sympathize with the country's leaders.

For example, a survey published recently by the VTsIOM polling agency indicates that over the past two years the number of people who put liberty before security has risen noticeably, to 44 percent from 27 percent. On the surface, this would seem to be a cause for celebration. But then, on Sept. 11 -- the day when the world remembered the victims of the terrorist attacks on the United States -- I read an article in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets in which the journalist recounted her journey to Moscow on an airplane, belonging to a Russian airline, that had an engine malfunction.

Before takeoff, the crew worked out that bringing in a replacement plane would be too costly for the airline. The pilots even told the journalist that they would only refuse to fly if they were 100 percent sure the plane would crash. The passengers, who were informed about the problem before takeoff, made no particular fuss either -- apparently in line with the Russian proverb that people born to be hanged don't have to worry about drowning. Disturbed by this attitude toward safety, the journalist reminded her readers about three horrific crashes this summer, near Sochi, in Irkutsk and outside Donetsk. She herself did not refuse to fly and, moreover, apparently guided by some very sovereign idea about journalistic ethics -- did not even name the airline in question. Readers of the popular daily henceforth have the right to harbor concerns about any Russian carrier.

After reading the article, I suddenly felt extreme compassion for another state official: Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. It is Ivanov who is responsible for aviation safety in a country where ordinary people and journalists take the liberty to play with their own safety and that of others. Encroaching on this liberty, I fear, would only lead to brutal repressions.

Whichever way you look at it, there is a sort of sovereignty exercised by individuals in Russia's democracy. So there is no special need to build it.

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