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Analysts See Football Culture Across Eastern Europe as a Breeding Ground for Nationalism, and Russia Has No Sanctions in Place to Diffuse It
Over 60 nationalists and football hooligans were arrested on Saturday in clashes with Interior Ministry troops near the Kremlin walls, after thousands gathered on Manezh Square to demand an investigation into the alleged murder of a Spartak FC fan by a migrant from Kabardino-Balkaria. Russia has a huge struggle ahead if it is to stamp out racism and nationalism in football before the 2018 World Cup, but at least now there is an eight-year timeframe piling pressure on the government to acknowledge a problem that elsewhere in Eastern Europe has already been addressed.
Police forces brutally dispersed the demonstration on Saturday, when smaller groups from the estimated 5,500-strong crowd of protestors began attacking non-Slavic passers-by. Twenty-nine were hospitalized, including at least three North Caucasians who suffered stab wounds, in clashes that then spilled into the Okhotny Ryad metro station. Observers say the police failed to diffuse a situation, which it was clear in advance was snowballing.
On Thursday, just a week after Russia was handed the 2018 World Cup, 1,000 Spartak fans blockaded Moscow’s arterial Leningradsky Prospect. They clambered onto cars and lit flares to demand an inquest into the murder of 28-year-old Yegor Sviridov, a Spartak fan, who was also believed to be part of a far-right group. Sviridov was shot four times by rubber bullets in a street brawl between Russians and internal migrants from the North Caucasus in north Moscow on December 6. Aslan Cherkesov from Kabardino-Balkaria has been taken into custody for the murder, although he claims he was acting in self-defense.
But no arrests were made after Thursday’s rioting, which paved the way for further disturbances. “The state reaction was simply not adequate,” said Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy head of the Moscow-based Sova Center racism watchdog. “And as long as there are no tough signals from the country’s law enforcement bodies and leaders that the riots on Manezh Square are going to be seriously investigated with people punished, the situation is just going to get worse. It just sends a message of unaccountability.”
President Dmitry Medvedev praised the brutal police crackdown on Saturday in a meeting with Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, later calling for tough punishments to be meted out and urging calm. "Everything is under control both in the country and in Moscow. All troublemakers will be punished, have no doubt," President Dmitry Medvedev tweeted late Sunday, even though all 66 protestors had been released by Sunday morning. Ten criminal cases were opened against protestors on Monday, Moscow’s Deputy Prosecutor Alexei Zakharov told Interfax.
Saturday afternoon’s unsanctioned protest was dedicated to Sviridov and Yuri Volkov, a Spartak fan who was stabbed and killed in a July scuffle with three Chechens at Chistie Prudy metro station in central Moscow. The murderer is being prosecuted, although Volkov’s friends claim that the Chechen lobby in Moscow leaned on the police to get his two companions out.
One banner read on Saturday: “Yuri Volkov - killed; Yegor Sviridov - killed; you next?” Another read “Moscow for Muscovites.” The unsanctioned protest began with Nazi saluting and racist chanting, until violence broke out when nationalists assaulted seven North Caucasian teenagers walking through Alexandrovsky Sad. The police were too few to protect them, according to a blog by Ilya Varlamov, a prolific Russian freelance photographer.
After nationalists barricaded themselves into the center of the square, the Head of the Moscow Police force Vladimir Kolokoltsev tried to negotiate with the ringleader of the group who refused to take off his mask and told the police head that the “Caucasus problem” had to be “solved” if they want disturbances to abate, Varlamov reported. Eight OMON riot police were injured, as masked protestors hurled chunks of ice and glass beer bottles, inexplicably still being sold on the square.
“As usual it was a complete disaster,” a Russian friend of Yuri Volkov who asked to remain anonymous told Russia Profile. “Normal people came. Well, more or less normal. They were not nationalists or football fans: they just wanted the government to pay attention because they are sick of Russian guys being openly killed on the streets of Moscow. But as a result fascists from some kind of opposition parties turned up and these people really did want to just cause a disturbance.”
“It’s hard to judge who was there but it looks like the key role was played by the ultra-right,” said Kozhevnikova. “Some ultra-right organizations, who have nothing to do with football fan groups were there, as well as far-right football fans who at this particular event preferred to join political groups instead of listening to calls from the leaders of fan groups. The ‘Russian March’ a month ago brought together 5,000 so it’s not surprising there were so many this time around.”
Strong ties between football and nationalism are a challenge across the region. “In Eastern Europe, and that includes Poland, Ukraine, and the other countries in the region, there is a problem with football culture in the sense that it has become a breeding ground for extremists and racists,” said Rafal Pankowski, the coordinator for an Eastern Europe Monitoring Center affiliated with UEFA, and a member of Never Again, a Polish anti-xenophobia center. “I don’t want to single out any one country. I see it as a regional problem.”
The Spartak fan base has officially tried to distance itself from the violence. "One should understand that everything that happened today and earlier has nothing to do with Spartak football club. This is not the position of the club wanting to pull away. This is a problem of our society. This is not football," Yegor Petrov, the fan club chief, told RIA Novosti.
“There were quite a few football fans on the square, although one minute they are football fans and the next it’s clear they are from organizations like the White Wolves or the White Revolution. The trouble is football clubs have no control over their fans,” said Kozhevnikova.
She was still pessimistic that sanctions on offenders could help the situation, even though none have been imposed on any football club in Russia. “If for instance they started banning people from coming to matches as punishment that could have an impact, but I seriously doubt it…I don’t even know what football clubs and football fan clubs should or can do to bring the people who were on Manezh Square to their senses.”
“This is a very important part of the problem – the acknowledgement by the authorities of the gravity of the problem and the need to take steps. I think in this context the World Cup in 2018 is actually a good opportunity,” said Pankowski. He said the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine has had a very positive impact on the situation there, and said he hoped that FIFA could replicate the work that UEFA has done in the 2012 host countries. “We have eight years, let’s see what we can do in this period,” he said.
Earlier on Saturday, a large group gathered to commemorate Sviridov peacefully. Volkov’s friend said that 10,000 – “roughly ten times as many as last time,” – turned up at the event. A member of “Fratriya,” Spartak’s group of “ultras” attended, but so did other football fans, some even from outside Moscow, as well as the “Night Wolves” biker club.
Fresh flowers are still being laid regularly to commemorate Volkov at Chistie Prudy metro station, unlike at the scenes of the March metro suicide bombings, an indication of the huge resonance of the case among some Russians.
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