Murder suspect's video stokes ethnic tensions

 

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A Dagestani man wanted by police for the murder of a Moscow football fan has released a video accusing Russian society of being racist and its political leaders of stoking up ethnic tensions.

Ramazan Utarbiyev, who is in hiding from police, is implicated in the murder of Yegor Sviridov, a 28-year-old Spartak Moscow football fan, last December, which led to ethnic riots in Moscow. With memories of the riots still fresh and the added tension of further terror threats after last month's suicide bomb attack at the city's Domodedovo Airport, there are worries that Moscow's ethnic melting pot could soon bubble over into chaos.

The North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan is volatile and mainly Islamic. Russian authorities are struggling to keep control and terrorist attacks are frequent. Doku Umarov – the leader of the region's rebels who this week claimed responsibility for the airport bomb – wants to create an Islamic "Emirate" in the Caucasus, ruled by sharia law.

However, his rhetoric is often much more specifically targeted: Umarov focuses on corruption and police brutality, and on Russian attitudes towards people from the Caucasus who live in Moscow, many of whom are economic migrants. He vowed that attacks would take place against "people who attack Caucasians on the order of Putin and his pack of dogs".

Yet many ethnic Russians are angry over what they see as the "aggressive" behaviour of immigrants from the North Caucasus, and point to the fact that many organised-crime groups in the capital are allegedly run by Chechens and others from the region. The terror attacks only add to the anger.

Mr Utarbiyev is wanted by police for his part in an altercation that left Mr Sviridov dead from gunshot wounds. Mr Utarbiyev and his friends were arrested by police but later released. This caused outrage among fan groups, who claimed that the men had paid off police. Protests in December turned into terrifying mob violence, with gangs of young Russian nationalists picking out anyone of non-Russian appearance and setting upon them with fists and knives.

In his recording, which was on a disc anonymously delivered to a newspaper in Dagestan, Mr Utarbiyev says the media and politicians have lied about the case, and that he and his friends were the victims of a racist attack and acted only in self defence. He does not, however, explain how Mr Sviridov suffered several gunshot wounds.

After the incident, police reviewed video evidence and decided Mr Utarbiyev and his friends were innocent, he claims in the video. It was only after "lies" had been spread that his friends were re-arrested and he decided to go into hiding. He accused Russian television and politicians of exploiting the incident, and said that if he and his friends had died, nobody would have taken any notice.

Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, has criticised police for releasing the men, while the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, laid flowers at Mr Sviridov's grave and gave warning that migrants to Moscow should try harder to fit in with local customs. Rights watchdogs say such statements may inflame nationalist passions, while Russian nationalist leaders have said that the Kremlin is too soft on migrants and have called for further street action.

Mr Utarbiyev, who says in the video that his father fought for the Soviet Union in the Second World War, explained he had expected Moscow to be a friendly city where people respected each other. "From the first day, I found people's attitudes to me were hateful... It was dangerous to walk alone around Moscow," he says in the video.

Moscow seems vulnerable both to terrorist attacks and ethnic unrest. "All residents of our country need to realise that we will have to live under the threat of terror for a long time to come," Vladimir Vasilyev, the head of the Russian parliament's security committee, said yesterday.

Meanwhile nationalist leaders have called on ethnic Russians to arm themselves, saying that leaving the house without a weapon is "irresponsible".

Reports also surfaced yesterday that three natives of the North Caucasus had been arrested over the attack at Domodedovo Airport. The Life News website reported that two of those arrested were relatives of the suicide bomber, who is believed to have been a 20-year old from Ingushetia called Magomed Yevloyev. It was also announced a number of high-ranking officials from the FSB security service have been fired after the attack.

Russia's internal problems

Russia's North Caucasus, a region of mountains and steppe on the country's southern border, has a history of ethnic and clan feuding and rebellion against Russian rule since Tsarist times.

The rebellion by Chechens inhabiting the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains began in the 1990s as a largely ethnic nationalist movement, fired by a sense of injustice over the transportation of Chechens to Central Asia, with enormous loss of life, by Josef Stalin in the 1940s. Chechnya declared independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, and there have been two wars with Russian forces since 1994. Officially, Russia ended its "counter-terrorism operation" in Chechnya in April 2009. But violence intensified in neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia, where clan rivalries overlap with criminal gangs and Islamist militancy.

Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen politicians said many commanders in the region had been killed by 2007 and the losses had broken the back of the resistance. Resistance websites and recent attacks tell a different story. Reuters

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