Saturday, May 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Militia Play Up Ethnic Crime to Justify Crackdown on Minorities

Paul Goble

Baku, May 15 – The Moscow militia, in league with media outlets interested in sensationalism, is vastly overstating the extent and nature of ethnic crime in the Russian capital in order to get approval for a sweeping crackdown against minorities, according to a former interior ministry officer.
Dmitry Berkut told this week that the authorities do not keep the kind of ethnically specific statistics on crime many newspapers and websites report and that there is no basis to talk about “the beginning of ‘a major war between ethnic criminal groups,’ … or between clans of one of the national criminal groups” (
Of course, there are cases of violence by members of one ethnic group against another, he continued, but any suggestions that these constitute the opening of an ethnic “’apocalypse’ is a “cynical” effort by the militia to secure a green light for the kind of crackdown against these minorities that many members of the many militiamen took part in the North Caucasus.
“As soon as people begin to talk about some kind of ‘ethnic war,’ Berkut said, “I assure you, a directive will come to conduct raids in the marks, construction sites, auto services and other places where people called in the language of the militia ‘persons of Caucasus appearance’ are working.”
At that point, he continued, “the OMON will receive carte blanche for ‘soft cleansings’ in these places,” a kind of official blessing in advance that will allow the militia to operate with even less attention to legality than normally and with their work being celebrated by the media as a valiant defense of public order.
Berkut said that when he worked in the militia it often happened that after a murder or attack on or by a member of a non-Russian minority, the militia would be given unwritten orders to “restore order” and show “who is boss in the city," orders the militiamen on the street interpreted to mean that they were free to act as they pleased.
“As a result, the militia, which hardly famed for its tolerance, simply begins to conduct itself as many of its officers became accustomed to act during the special operations in the North Caucasus,” with the militiamen focusing not on the actions of individuals but on their assumptions about groups.
Such ethnic profiling has become especially common in Moscow, he continued, where specific ethnic groups are typically connected in the public mind with specific sectors of the economy – the Azerbaijanis with construction and markets, for example, and the Armenians with restaurants, clubs, and automobile dealerships.
And this pattern which has some basis in fact, the former interior ministry officer continues, provides the basis for the media reports about “inter-ethnic wars,” conflicts that have supposedly begun because the economic downturn is forcing members of some nationalities to try to take over sectors controlled by members of another nationality.
Some of that may be happening, Berkut concedes, but media reporting about it is vastly overblown. Indeed, such reports about “new ethnic wars” are in almost all cases simply efforts by the interior ministry to justify its call for tougher laws and for more public understanding of and support for the militia’s need to use harsh measures.
To the extent Berkut is correct – and both his own experience and the internal consistency of his argument make that seem very likely – the current upsurge in media reporting about ethnic “crimes” in the Russian capital suggests that more clashes are likely to be ahead not so much between the various nationalities as between the nationalities and the Russian militia.

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