Hundreds of people protested against the Russian government Sunday at two separate rallies in Moscow, with opposition activists calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and nationalists demanding greater rights for ethnic Russians. Several opposition activists were detained.
A third rally with nationalist overtones drew more than 1,000 students in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, raising fears that long-standing ethnic tensions were reaching a boiling point.
The rallies followed violent clashes Saturday just outside the Kremlin walls between riot police and about 5,000 football fans and nationalists, who shouted “Russia for Russians.” Police said 34 people were injured; six of them were still hospitalized on Sunday. All 65 people detained during the clashes have been released.
The police crackdown further angered Slavic Russians who resent the growing presence of dark-complexioned people from Russia’s predominantly Muslim republics in the Caucasus.
Dozens of nationalists picketed Sunday at the Federal Security Service headquarters to protest what they described as discrimination against Russians in favor of ethnic minorities.
“Today, all the (democratic) instruments have been trampled upon by the authorities, which means, if they don’t want to use a civilized language, they will have to face, whether they want to or not, the Spartak (football club) rebellion, the crowds,” said Vladlen Kralin, a nationalist leader who goes by the name Vladimir Tor.
Saturday’s clash grew out of a rally held elsewhere in the city to protest the death last week of Yegor Svidorov, a member of the Spartak team’s fan organization, who was shot with rubber bullets in a fight at a bus stop. Those suspected of killing him are from the Caucasus.
The demonstration appeared to have inspired students in Rostov-on-Don, where 18-year-old Maxim Sychyov died last month after being beaten up by fellow university students from the nearby Caucasus.
More than 1,000 students gathered at his dormitory Sunday to light candles in his memory and then marched along the central avenue shouting “Go, Russians” and “Russians are united.” They called on university and city authorities to clamp down on students from the Caucasus.
The students, who were accompanied by police and Cossacks, dispersed peacefully.
The outburst of nationalism gave new ammunition to opposition leaders in Moscow, who drew several hundred people to a previously planned rally on a central square. They demanded Putin’s resignation, saying his policies had aggravated ethnic tensions.
“A conflict based on national enmity, which is apparent now, means disintegration of our multiethnic country,” said opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. “If we start beating one another and spill blood, we’ll be left without a country.”
Several activists were detained after leading a group of protesters to City Hall.
Russian football supporters ran riot in the centre of Moscow on Saturday, when a demonstration against the death of a fan descended into violence that left dozens injured and around 100 under arrest.
Thousands of fans, supported by members of far-right groups, gathered in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin for the unauthorised protest, shouting slogans such as “Russia for Russians” and “Moscow for Muscovites”, according to an AFP photographer.
They were protesting the death of Yegor Sviridov, a Spartak Moscow fan who was shot in the head last Saturday during a fight with men from the Russian Caucasus.
The incident has exposed the close links between the Russian far-right and football supporters, and is a major embarrassment for the country so soon after it won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
As many as 5,000 people, many wearing hoods and scarves to cover their faces, descended on the square, and fighting began to break out.
Several dozen supporters were beaten by anti-riot police, while at least five Caucasian men were violently attacked by supporters. Around 100 people were arrested.
Protestors also beat up a cameraman of state news agency RIA Novosti and smashed his camera.
“If the authorities don’t change the policy on immigration, there will be a lot of bloodshed,” said one demonstrator, whose face was hidden begin a black mask.
The suspect in Sviridov’s shooting, Aslan Cherkesov, who is from the Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, is under arrest and claimed he was acting in self defence.
The violence followed a protest on Tuesday evening in which around 1,000 people blocked a Moscow highway and shouted racist slogans.
Meanwhile in Saint Petersburg, around 1,500 supporters gathered for a similar unauthorised protest.
Police arrested about 60 people when fans broke through a police cordon and stopped traffic on several major roads.
Spartak Moscow is one of the top Russian premiership sides and it has an impassioned support base in the capital.
As Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup, its football fans–some of whom model themselves on British hooligans, wearing the same fashion labels and calling themselves “firms”–will be closely watched by the authorities.
In July another Spartak fan, telejournalist Yury Volkov, was stabbed to death in a fight with men from the Russian Caucasus in a central Moscow park. A Chechen man has been charged with the crime.
The killing prompted fans to brandish banners with Volkov’s name at matches and to hold several public protests.