Vienna, August 3 – A deadly clash between ethnic Chechens and ethnic Russians in a closed city near a missile test site in Astrakhan oblast on July 19th both has sparked fears among many Russians of a new wave of Kondopoga-type violence across that country and raised questions about security in some of Moscow’s most sensitive military facilities.
And these concerns have been intensified because Russian officials first tried to suppress media coverage, thus leaving the field to bloggers -- some of whom like those connected to the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) have their own agendas -- and then downplaying the events in ways that have led more people to ask what in fact took place.
Until the end of last week, as various Russian news agencies pointed out since Friday, the clash in the closed city of Znamensk near the Kapustin Yar military rocket test facility had “become known only from the communications of local residents posted on websites on the Internet” (nr2.ru/incidents/243027.html).
Some of these initial reports were cast in extremely dramatic language. For example, one that appeared on a number of sites bore the title “’The Conquered City,’” and its contents prompted DPNI to give it the subtitle “The Story of an Eyewitness of the Bloody Slaughter of Russians Carried out by Caucasians” (www.dpni.org/articles/lenta_novo/12963/).
Now, either prompted to investigate what happened by such stories or called upon to do so by officials concerned that rumors about these events, if allowed to circulate unchallenged, could spark even more conflicts, mainstream Russian news outlets are beginning to pick up the story, albeit in ways that still raise more questions than answers.
In a summary of what these agencies and newspapers have reported so far, Regions.ru today provides both a description of what happened that most accounts seem to agree on and a list of the rapidly multiplying explanations for what happened provided by participants, local residents, and officials of various kinds (www.regions.ru/news/2230481/).
According to the news agency, there was “a mass fight between Chechens and Russians” with shooting and victims involving at least 150 people “on the territory of the closed territorial formation of Znamensk in Astrakhan oblast” adjoining the village of Kapustin-Yar which is “the main rocket test site of Russia.”
Moreover, Regions.ru continues, as a result of the conflict, several people were hospitalized and one 28-year-old Russian, Vitaly Mil’kov, died of wounds he had received. Immediately, after the fight, the agency says, officials introduced a curfew and flooded Znamensk with additional militia detachments.
But after that, the news agency says in a report headlined “Kapustin Yar: A Bandit Clash or a New Kondopoga?” the accounts of local residents, participants in the clash, and officials at all levels has diverged, with the number of explanations already so large that it is increasingly difficult to know what actually happened.
Local people, it says, blame the Caucasians, much as Russians did for the clashes in the Karelian city of Kondopoga in the summer of 2006. Moreover, the local people say, the local militia knew about the plans of the Caucasians in advance and did nothing, apparently planning to use the violence as the occasion for expelling them from the city’s markets.
Participants pointed to various triggering events, ranging from personal antipathies at a café to an automobile accident to a struggle among criminal groups. And some officials suggested the whole event had been staged with an eye to boosting the chances of one or another candidate in upcoming elections.
But local officials have been consistent. They continue to deny that ethnicity had anything to do with the clash, blaming it all on “daily life” problems and filing charges after Mil’kov died only for “the intentional application of harm to health” and “hooliganism committed by a group of persons on the basis of prior agreement.”
More information may surface in the coming days, but two features of this clash already are generating real concerns. On the one hand, many of those living near Kapustin Yar have access to guns and know how to use them, something that could mean any future clashes could be more violent (www.mk.ru/incident/publications/327411.html).
And on the other – and this is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all – Russian officials reportedly were surprised to discuss that the closed city of Znamensk for which special entry passes are required was “full of unregistered residents,” a pattern that raises questions about security at Russian military facilities more generally (nr2.ru/incidents/243027.html).