Bombing in Russia highlights discrimination faced by those from Caucasus

At 15, Israil Mirzakhanov was at a crossroads: He could stay home in the Caucasus region, where several of his friends already had been taken from their homes and had turned up dead in the street. Or he could take his chances with the rampant discrimination in Moscow.

Four years later, now a tall and fit-looking college student, he becomes something of a pariah when he steps out on the snowy streets of the capital. He tries not to look people in the eyes because he knows what he’ll see. Fear. Anger. At best, indifference.

When he takes a seat on a metro train, someone sitting next to him might move to the other end of the car.

This week, in the wake of another bombing immediately blamed on extremists from the Caucasus, Mirzakhanov faced more of the same. Emerging with four friends from a police booth at a metro station Tuesday, he said he felt fortunate to be detained for only half an hour.


For more than a decade, Russian officials have emphasized tough tactics against Islamic militants and separatists in the patchwork of republics along the north rim of the Caucasus. Critics say the approach followed by President Dmitry Medvedev and particularly his political mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has only driven more people into the arms of the insurgents

At the same time, they say, violence in the Caucasus and retaliatory terrorist attacks in the Russian heartland have hardened attitudes toward people from the Caucasus, and the Kremlin has shown little inclination to counter the discrimination.

“I am a foreigner here in my own land,” Mirzakhanov said. “They will never accept me as an ordinary Russian because my hair and eyes are dark.”

A week earlier, he said, he was held for six hours at a central Moscow police station. “When I asked what my problem was, a policeman yelled at me: ‘Look at your face and you will see your problem.’”


Mirzakhanov is a Russian citizen, but comes from a town in the republic of Dagestan on the border with Chechnya. Back there in Khasavyurt, six friends ranging in age from 13 to 17 already are dead, he said. Most of them were accused of being members of an underground movement, arrested by uniformed men and later found dead.

Last week, he said, the news from his hometown was about two shops and a cafe that had been bombed.

Facing those prospects, his parents sent their only son to live with a cousin in Moscow, where four years later he is taking college courses in management. In many ways, his is a common story; as difficult as life is in Moscow, strong family ties help. And as bleak as job prospects are in the capital, they are better than those back home.

Many Russians, though, often regard people from the Caucasus as potential terrorists or common criminals. Chechen organized crime groups are among the most feared.


“If you open any popular Moscow daily and look at its crime section, or watch a crime program on a federal television channel, you will gather that an overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by members of the Caucasus diasporas,” said Alexander Aratov, publisher of the nationalist Russkaya Pravda newspaper. “If these people from the Caucasus come here to stay they must behave properly, or go home.”

Roving gangs of young Russian nationalists target people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, beating, robbing and sometimes killing them.

Mirzakhanov has some tips for coping. Don’t go out alone, try not to carry bags or suitcases, don’t stay too long in one place and don’t visit the suburbs where skinhead gangs tend to congregate, especially at night. Don’t argue with police officers and make sure your documents are in order.

Narine Tumanova, a bank manager of Armenian descent, said she understands that terrorist attacks make Muscovites nervous but she thinks their fears are simplistic and based on “daily brainwashing.”


“Terrorism doesn’t have a nationality because it is a political phenomenon, and that should be carefully explained to people before this growing xenophobia gets out of control,” she said.

Critics say Kremlin policies have made matters worse in the Caucasus and pushed more people like Mirzakhanov to leave their homes for places like Moscow. After two wars, the fighting is largely over in Chechnya, but the violence has spread. Local officials put in place by Moscow to keep a lid on the region use indiscriminate violence to stay in power, they say.

Medvedev told leaders of the Federal Security Service on Tuesday that perpetrators of Monday’s attack on Domodedovo Airport, which killed 35 people, should be “found, exposed and put on trial.”

“The nests of these bandits, whatever they are called, must be liquidated,” he said. Even so, Medvedev also acknowledged that the number of terrorist acts in Russia increased in 2010.


“Once again the Kremlin is declaring its stubborn adherence to blunt, unselective violence,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader and co-chairman of the People’s Freedom Party. More terrorist attacks will probably result, he said.

The Kremlin is pouring millions of dollars into the Caucasus, including efforts to renovate skiing and mountaineering resorts. Experts argue that the money goes to buy the loyalty of corrupt paramilitary groups who actually hold power there.

“They completely ignore Russian laws and do whatever they want in their republics,” said Varvara Pakhomenko, a researcher with the human rights group Russian Justice Initiative. “That compels people, especially young men driven underground, to find refuge in fundamental Islam.”

“And it is insane to turn the place into a combat zone with one hand and try to present it as a tourist attraction with the other unless the goal is just to waste a gigantic sum of money,” she said.


Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova analytical center that specializes in studying xenophobia and other topics, said ethnic discrimination in Russia is a “daily evil,” but for political reasons the Kremlin leadership won’t press fair housing legislation and other such measures.

When Russian nationalists rallied last month in Moscow, Mirzakhanov didn’t go out. Some of his friends were beaten at a metro stop. “They beat them up for a long time, kicking them hard, and not a single policeman interfered,” he said.

“We know who the enemy is,” he said. “It is us, aliens in our own country, in our own capital.”