MOSCOW — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday to investigate the causes of weekend riots that led to a wave of racist violence in downtown Moscow and he warned that police will crack down hard on “virus like” ultranationalist agitators.
Even as he spoke, police were completing a massive security sweep in 10 Russian cities that saw almost 2,000 people arrested by Thursday evening. Police said the operation was aimed at preventing any repeat of the weekend riots.
“Russia must suppress all manifestations of extremism, on all sides, wherever they may come from,” Mr. Putin said at the top of his annual question-and-answer telethon, which features real time interchanges with ordinary Russians by TV hookup, e-mail, and SMS, and typically goes on for several hours.
Comparing police to a body’s immune system, Putin said a harsh clampdown on extremists was the only way to preserve ethnic harmony in Russia’s multi-national social fabric.
“This bacillus [racism], is always present in society, just as viruses exist in all organisms,” Putin said. “If a person has good immunity, these viruses remain dormant. And the same thing with society; if society’s immune system is strong, if society is mature, then these bacilli of nationalism and radicalism will just sit there quietly, at cell level, and not act up.”
Police say they arrested 800 people in Moscow alone on Wednesday, and seized a large quantity of small weapons, including knives, stun guns, and blunt objects.
But critics say police actions are not proportional to the threat posed by Russia’s mininscule ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groupings, and warn the crackdown might be a prelude to a wider campaign against Kremlin opponents.
“We are witnessing a breakdown of state institutions, and not a revolution or organized uprising by nationalists,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an editor with the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta.
“The authorities have only one tool, and that is arrests. But this can lead only to a tougher regime,” he says. “And this may be just what Putin wants. Perhaps he intends to use this to promote his own bid to become president again.”
Millions of non-Slavs live in major Russian cities, the result of centuries of expansion by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union across Eurasia. Russian nationalists express particular contempt for minorities from Russia’s mainly-Muslim northern Caucasus region, an antagonism that’s been aggravated in recent years by two wars against Chechen separatists and cycles of terrorist violence that have killed hundreds of Russians in Moscow and other cities.
“Putin said the usual things about how all Russians, of all ethnicities, should be safe in the streets of our cities,” says Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the independent Sova Center, which tracks ultranationalist groups. “But he also put out other signals that give cause for worry. It sounded at times like he was blaming all opponents for the violence, not just nationalists.”
In an interview with the pro-government Moscow daily Izvestia Thursday, the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, charged that liberals who often protest for greater freedom of assembly actually caused the nationalist upsurge.
“Moscow and Russia need a civil peace,” Mr. Surkov wrote. “It’s actually our ‘liberal’ public that is constantly trying to make unapproved rallies trendy, and nationalists and rednecks just imitate them. “
Many experts, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have been warning that Russia urgently needs to undergo sweeping democratic reforms if it is to avoid the fate of the USSR.
Over the past decade, Putin and his successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, have worked to strengthen the state, along with its bureaucracy and security services, often at the expense of press freedoms and public democracy.
“Putin thinks that this type of state creates stability,” says Mr. Kolesnikov. “But Russian history tells a different story.”
Over the past century alone, two mighty, autocratic, and bureaucratized Russian regimes – Czarist and Soviet – have collapsed amid public rejoicing.
“This is why people in the Kremlin are so frightened by any protests, and think that only more force can resolve the problem,” says Kolesnikov. “That’s a very good reason for all of us to be worried.”