Nationalists began a series of protest rallies across Russia early yesterday to mark National Unity Day in a show of force by the country's rising anti-immigrant movement.
Some 200 protesters in the far eastern city of Vladivostok waved flags with neo-fascist symbols and chanted pro-Russian slogans ahead of a major demonstration planned later in the day in Moscow by the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, known by its Russian acronym as DPNI.
Protesters called for a "Russia for Russians," one of several slogans carefully chosen by the DPNI in an attempt to push their anti-immigration agenda without breaking any laws.
Throughout Russia, nationalist movements appear to be successfully tapping into growing fears that native Russians are losing out, especially economically, to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who come to the country every year.
"The interests of the native population are not being taken into account," said Artyom Semyonov, a spokesman for Russian March 2006, which planned rallies in six major cities for yesterday in spite of official bans.
Although the Vladivostok protest was also banned by city authorities, local police did not attempt to break up the march, which passed off peacefully.
The centerpiece of the protests was planned for Moscow later in the day, where nationalists vowed to bring 10,000 supporters into the streets near Gorky Park despite a ban announced by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.
"If the event is impressive ... it will be time to talk about the appearance of a new force on the political arena in Russia," the Gazeta daily said on Friday.
Some 8,000 police officers were to be deployed in Moscow to ensure National Unity Day, a holiday marking the liberation of Moscow from Polish occupation in the 17th century, passes off peacefully.
Nationalist groups say mainstream politicians are increasingly taking note of their movement, particularly after the killing of two ethnic Russians in the northwest town of Kondopoga in August sparked rioting against Chechens.
"Putin Is With Us!" read a banner headline on the DPNI's Web site after Russian President Vladimir Putin called last month for authorities to "protect the interests of Russia's native population" in the country's markets.
Food markets are a focus for ethnic tensions because many are managed and staffed by foreigners. The perception among ordinary Russians is that they are linked to immigrant organized crime groups.
Such views are being heard more frequently among officials, too.
Immigrants "find ways of living in the shadow economy, violating the law and transforming themselves into marginal people," Konstantin Romodanovsky, head of the federal migration service said on Friday, RIA-Novosti reported.
Romodanovsky estimated the number of illegal immigrants in Russia at more than 10 million. Most come to look for jobs from neighboring republics.
Russian media and human rights groups warn that growing anti-immigrant feelings in the country are frequently expressed as open racism.