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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Moscow Treats Ethnic Russians Protesters Very Differently than Non-Russian Ones


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Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – When governments and the police treat demonstrators differently depending on which ethnic group is involved, that almost inevitably leads to the radicalization of the one treated worse but does not necessarily win the regime understanding and support among the one treated better.

            The editors of the independent Ingush Fortanga portal point out that since the daily protests began in the predominantly ethnic Russian region of Khabarovsk almost three months ago, the police have issued 180 summons on administrative violations but not lodged a single criminal charge against anyone (fortanga.org/2020/09/habarovsk-ingushetiya/).

            But when the Ingush protested in Magas two days at the end of March 2019, the powers that be brought criminal charges against 44 individuals, many of whom remain in pre-trial detention and have been identified as political prisoners, and some 300 administrative charges.

Clearly, the portal’s editors conclude, officials feel free to be repressive in a non-Russian region but are quite cautious in a predominantly ethnic Russian one. They spoke with three experts about the contrast between how officials handled Magas and how they have dealt with Khabarovsk so far.

            First, Mikhail Savva, a political scientist at Kuban State University, stresses that the two protests were quite similar. At the very least, there were no differences which could possibly justify such differences in treatment. The only explanations available is that the Khabarovsk protests were by Russians and right before the regional elections.

            (Although Fortanga does not address this possibility, it seems clear from Savva’s remarks that the approach of elections may have a bigger influence on how the Russian authorities treat ethnic Russian demonstrators than on how they deal with non-Russian ones, the opposite of the impact many typically assume voting has.)

            Second, Magomed Bekov, an Ingush lawyer, says that in his view there is no question that the nationality of the protesters defined how Moscow and the regional authorities behaved. The powers that be simply won’t use force against ethnic Russians as readily as they will against non-Russians.

            At the same time, he suggests, the size of the protests matters as well. In Khabarovsk, the protests have been quite large, numbering in the thousands, while in Magas, when the siloviki moved against the demonstrators, there were no more than a few hundred. The willingness of the Russian Guards and police to move against the latter is obviously far greater.

            And third, Ruslan Mutsolgov, the head of the Ingushetia sector of Yabloko, says that in his view, the regional authorities offered contrasting pictures of the situation to Moscow and that played a major role in the decision of the center whether to authorize the use of force or not against the protesters.

            In Ingushetia, then-republic head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov encouraged Moscow to believe that outside agitators were involved, a picture that had nothing to do with reality but that was intended to protect him from being blamed for the problems. That didn’t work, but it did incline Moscow toward the use of force.

            In Khabarovsk, by way of contrast, both the regional authorities and Moscow very much wanted to avoid any suggestion that outsiders of any kind were behind the demonstrators and consequently Moscow was not given the same justification for moving quickly and forcefully against them.

            But despite the nuances in their arguments, the three clearly concur that Moscow is likely to treat Russian demonstrators differently than non-Russian ones, that the costs of going into the streets are thus lower for the former than the latter, but that the non-Russians, seeing this difference, have ever more reason for becoming increasingly radical. 

Window on Eurasia — New Series