A bar fight that broke out last weekend between two young men in a small town of Pugachev in Russia’s central Saratov region, ended with racial violence. The victim, 21-year-old Ruslan Marzhanov, a town local of Tatar extraction, died of knife wounds in the hospital on Saturday, July 6. The suspect, 16-year-old Chechen Ali Nazirov, was later detained for the murder.
What should have been a tragic, but routine case, quickly morphed into something else. The murder underscored long-standing ethnic tensions between the native Russian population and the town's North Caucasian diaspora. After the funeral, which was held the day after Marzhanov died, hundreds of locals marched into a Chechen neighborhood, demanding that the Chechens “leave.” Several people were reportedly injured in the brawl that ensued, although the police maintain [ru] that they were able to prevent the violence.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the victim was reportedly friends with local Chechens. Azamat Mitsaev, a Moscow resident involved with youth city government, reported [ru] on his Facebook that Marzhanov's Chechen friends were the ones who took him to the hospital, and were also apparently the ones to find Ali Nazirov and turn him over to the police, having first “beaten him up.”
The acting Governor of Saratov Oblast, Valery Radaev, urged the people to remain calm, saying [ru]:
Неконтролируемая стихия может повлечь за собой цепную реакцию, в результате чего не исключены новые невинные жертвы. Мы не имеем права такого допустить! [...] кровная месть и национальная ненависть – не способ решения проблем, а бомба замедленного действия”
An uncontrolled force of nature [like a popular uprising] can lead to a chain reaction, resulting in new innocent victims. We cannot allow this! [...] blood feuds and national hatred are not a way to solve problems, but a ticking time bomb.”
His entreaties fell on deaf ears — when Pugachev Mayor Stanislav Sidorov walked out to speak with the crowd that congregated in the town square Monday, he was heckled, reports [ru] Twitter user Liudmila Rossenko:
Главу облили водой. Народ ликует #Пугачев
The Head [of Administration] got water poured all over him. The people are happy #Pugachev
According to locals this was not the first time the Chechens had caused problems. The BBC’s Russian Service quoted [ru] the chairman of the regional branch of the opposition RPR-PARNAS party:
У меня родственники там живут в Пугачеве. Не первый раз у них, четыре или пять убийств уже было. Дагестанцы, чеченцы облюбовали город Пугачев. Эти конфликты у них происходят последние два года все серьезнее и серьезнее. И встает вопрос, почему власть в это до сих пор не вмешивалась?
I have relatives living in Pugachev. This is not the first incident, they've had four or five murders already. Dagestanis, Chechens have taken a fancy to the city of Pugachev. These conflicts have, over the past 2 years become more and more serious. And the question arises, why don’t the powers that be intervene?
Marzhanov's mother emphasized this point [ru]:
Я не имею претензий к чеченцам, у меня претензии к власти, которая допускает и потворствуют их беспределу.
I have no complaints about the Chechens, I have complaints about the government, which allows and indulges their lawlessness.
The Kommersant [ru] newspaper reports that in the meantime, residents of Pugachev have come together in a working group, which will establish “people's patrols” to patrol the town streets along with the police. The people have “lost faith” in the regional government, and seem ready to resort to “vigilante justice.”
The situation is exacerbated by episodes of mass hysteria. For example, a video posted on YouTube [ru] Monday alleged that the authorities had sent armored personnel carriers (APCs) to Pugachev because of the escalating protests. The video, which now has over 200 thousand views, turned out to be a fake, shot last month during local military exercises. This did not prevent it from fooling many bloggers, including the popular opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who used the apparent establishment of martial law as an excuse to sarcastically blog “this is what ‘stability’ looks like.” [ru] Navalny later removed the video from his blog.
Meanwhile, in response to appeals from the local government, the Investigative Committee (Russia's federal investigative agency) agreed [ru] to launch an inquiry into events in Pugachev. This seems to indicate that the federal government is concerned that the situation could still spin out of control. But, perhaps, this is a case of too little, too late. Vigilante justice may still prevail.