Wed, Dec 22, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Kremlin rioting exposes racism lurking behind Russian soccer

Ethnic unrest has spread beyond Moscow amid growing links between ultra-nationalist youth and fans as Russia gears up to host soccer’s 2018 World Cup

By Miriam Elder  /  The Guardian, MOSCOW

Behind a black door just steps from the golden domes of -Novodevichy Monastery, a group of young men and women sit huddled at computers. They are surrounded by racks of red and white sweaters and scarves that mark the devoted fans of FC Spartak, Moscow’s leading soccer club.

This is the headquarters of Fratria, the unofficial Spartak fan club that lost one of its members when he was killed during a brawl with a gang from the Caucasus, the restive mainly Muslim region on Russia’s southernmost flank.

The shooting of Yegor Sviridov on Dec. 6 has sparked the worst race riots Moscow has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. The killing and beating of immigrants has increased, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti has proliferated and the atmosphere is tense.

For the past week, groups of roaming youth have taken to the streets daily, shouting “Russia for Russians! Moscow for Muscovites!”

The youths manning the shop at Fratria say they are not involved.

“We only support legal, peaceful forms of protest,” said Lena Sekhina, the club’s press secretary.

Russia is notoriously awash in racism, with nationalist feelings increasingly stoked by the government since the collapse of the Soviet Union left an ideological vacuum. Yet many are beginning to wonder why tensions have finally boiled over. There are the conspiracy theories that say the unrest was stoked by the -government of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to prove the need for his authoritarian rule. Others wonder whether nationalist groups are taking advantage of the weakened political climate following the dramatic firing of Moscow’s veteran mayor, Yury Luzhkov, two months ago.

For Yevgeny Valyaev, the cause is clear.

“It’s not one death. It’s a pressure that’s been building for several years,” said the shaven-headed leader of Russky Obraz, an ultra-nationalist group that helped gather some of the 5,000 men who descended upon the Kremlin on Dec. 11, launching the current unrest.

“There was no way we could not gather — because he was a football fan and because he was Russian,” he said, referring to Sviridov. “It was a protest against ethnic banditry.”

The link between ultra--nationalism and soccer has flourished in Russia, which boasts some of the rowdiest supporters in Europe. On Friday, Union of European Football Associations fined Spartak 75,000 euros (US$98,760) after its supporters invaded the pitch during a Champions League match away to Zilina in Slovakia. Several Russian clubs have been fined over the years after supporters waved racist banners referring to African players as monkeys.

It’s a rabid hatred that has been years in the making. Russia has eight years to prepare for its role as host of the 2018 World Cup. Some are concerned that while eight years may be enough time to build stadiums and travel -infrastructure, it may not be enough to transform a national mind-set.

“I have always been a patriot,” said Valyaev, a stocky 23-year-old who also helps organize the annual neo-Nazi rally in Moscow. “We think the interests of the race should be above the interests of the government — the government must work for the race. To stop this wave now, people must see that their protests have been heard.”

Four days after the Kremlin riot, youths gathered in sites around Moscow, shouting racist slogans and standing off with the hundreds of riot police called in to control them. More than 1,000 people were arrested.

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