Kondopoga, Russia—Dozens of wrecked market stalls rot in the rain and a restaurant stands burned and looted, its windows boarded up.
This is the scene of Russia’s latest explosion of race violence in which, for the first time, an alliance of locals and Moscow-based extremists appears to have driven almost an entire ethnic group from a town.
Three dark-skinned men from the Caucasus region interviewed by Reuters in Kondopoga, near the Finnish border, said there had been 150 migrants in the town before the violence. Fewer than two dozen remain.
“If things don’t improve, we’ll have to leave too. And we don’t think they’ll get any better,” one of the men said, talking in a lowered voice and glancing nervously around the empty market. “This is unique,” Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center said. “Disturbingly, this is what the people of Kondopoga were demanding, that the Caucasians be hounded out of town.”
Since the collapse of communism in 1991 already simmering racist attitudes have grown in Russia, partly aggravated by Chechen separatist attacks that have fanned suspicion of people who do not look Russian.
Trouble started in Kondopoga, a town of 40,000 in the Russian province of Karelia, after a bar fight over an unpaid bill between locals and Chechens. Two Russians were killed.
The deaths ignited smoldering resentment against the small Caucasus community—which included Chechens, other Russian Caucasians as well as immigrants from Azerbaijan and Armenia—whom the Russians said controlled the market and had bought off the police.
And they now wanted the migrants out.
So locals turned to the Moscow-based Action Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), a self-styled far-right consultancy and public relations group, who willingly admit their involvement.
“We are in favor of removing all illegal immigrants from Karelia,” Alexei Mikhailov, a DPNI leader, said. DPNI, which sent members to Kondopoga, considers most migrants to be illegal, he added.
Russia’s constitution says all its citizens, regardless of ethnic origin, have the right to work anywhere in Russia.
But Mikhailov—a 30-year-old electronics engineer with a physics doctorate from Moscow University who used to work in San Francisco—has little time for such statements.
“We have nothing to say to the ethnic diasporas, they should be removed from negotiations,” he said.
On September 2, a couple of days after the fight, around 2,000 locals attacked businesses and property owned by Caucasus natives. They ripped market stalls apart, stoned migrants’ homes and burned and looted the Azeri restaurant where the Russians were killed.
The rampage lasted long into the night and was only quelled after authorities called in police reinforcements from Petrozavodsk, the regional capital.
DPNI had not planned a riot, Mikhailov said, but he viewed the result as positive.
“It was a big PR success. We got our message across.”