Graham Stack for Russia Profile (www.russiaprofile.org)
November 17, 2010
The Scandal Around Khimki Could Lead to a Standoff Between the Kremlin and Russian Nationalists
By Graham Stack
With the Kremlin’s gaze apparently shifting from the city of Moscow to Moscow Region, President Dmitry Medvedev will have to publicly take sides in the escalating confrontation between nationalists and civil society. The brutal attack on journalist Oleg Kashin, the latest in a series of attacks on critics of the municipal authorities in the Moscow Region town of Khimki, has become a Russian cause célèbre: Kashin’s name was the third most often mentioned name in the Russian news last week, following Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The investigation into the attack is now being conducted by the country’s highest-ranking investigators from the newly-independent Investigation Committee. And in another sign of mounting political pressure on Khimki and Moscow, on November 13, the NTV television channel ran an investigative report into the situation surrounding Khimki, which was extremely hostile to the town’s now notorious Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko. In recent months, similar critical NTV reports have been a sign of the Kremlin’s displeasure with, firstly, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and secondly with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, both of whom combine neo-Soviet patriotism with corruption and authoritarianism.
The NTV report on Luzhkov immediately preceded the dismissal of the long-serving Moscow mayor. NTV’s Khimki report may indicate that the Kremlin will not wait for the results of the investigation into the attack on Kashin, but draw its own “organizational conclusions” about the situation in the region conclusions that may not be limited to Khimki but may also impact Boris Gromov, the governor of Moscow Region, directly.
While public attention has been focused on Khimki and on Strelchenko, whoever speaks of Strelchenko has also to speak of General Boris Gromov, the governor of Moscow Region and of Boevoe Bratstvo (“brothers-in-arms”) the country-wide organization of veterans of the Afghan and Chechen wars, which Gromov heads. Gromov himself was the last Soviet general to command the Afghanistan campaign, and the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan in 1989. And like many of Gromov’s subordinates in the Moscow Region government and the administrations of the region’s towns, Strelchenko is also an Afghan veteran and an active member of Boevoe Bratstvo.
Officially Boevoe Bratstvo’s activities consist of patriotic acts, such as building war memorials across the country to servicemen who died in the Afghan and Chechen wars, and providing extensive material support to veterans. As such, the organization is an improvement on the Afghan veteran organizations of the 1990s, which were basically part of the organized crime scene thanks to their capacity for violence and group solidarity, combined with the extensive tax and customs benefits the government granted them as subsidies to charities.
Unofficially, the signs are that in the early years of holding office in Moscow Region, Gromov deployed Boevoe Bratstvo and a retinue of former army comrades to repress feuding organized crime groups and monopolize protection-racket rents, marked by a wave of violence from 2000 to 2004, which saw several heads of regional municipalities slain.
Mission accomplished and offices gained, Gromov’s people, especially in Khimki, seem to have turned from repressing crime groups to repressing criticism of the new order and its endemic corruption: Khimki, perched on the border of the city of Moscow, one of the world’s most expensive cities, has some of the most attractive real estate in Europe, with tens of millions of dollars worth of easy pickings for unscrupulous bureaucrats to privatize state-owned land plots and re-zone agricultural land.
And the list of names of Khimki-related activists and journalists who have fallen victim to violent attacks after criticizing the authorities is long: prior to the attack on Kashin for which the Khimki link is not the only possible explanation Khimki-based journalist Anatoly Yurov was stabled with a knife ten times in an attack in 2008; his colleague Mikhail Beketov was beaten so severely the same year that he is now severely disabled; and journalists Yury Slyusarev and Yuri Granin were also victims of beatings in 2008. Only days before the attack on Kashin, environmental activist Konstantin Fetisov had his skull broken in an attack on November 4.
Surveying this tragic list gives one the impression that the repeated ferocity of attacks has an ideological nationalist component. The only parallel for the brutal punishment meted out to journalists and activists linked with Khimki is that which has been meted out to journalists and activists by rightwing extremists: leftwing activist Alexander Rukhin was murdered in April 2007 by ultranationalists, while a rightwing extremist has been detained for the murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in January of 2009. And there may have been ultranationalist involvement in the still unsolved murder of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. Like Markelov, she had been active in exposing human rights abuses by Russian servicemen in Chechnya.
Whether the motive for the particularly brutal attacks on Khimki civil society activists is linked to the Afghan veteran networks prevalent in Moscow Region and the nationalist ideology they espouse will only be proved or disproved by an investigation. But a swift Kremlin crackdown on Khimki and on Moscow Region, on Strelchenko and on Gromov, for image purposes or out of genuine concern for civil society, could well add to growing nationalist resentment of the Medvedev administration and force the Kremlin to finally take sides in the nationalism versus civil society clash, even at the risk of becoming a target of nationalist anger.
This is not far-fetched. Nationalist political violence already seems to have targeted state officials in at least two instances. In April 2010 federal judge Eduard Chuvashov, who had given a group of Neo-nazis lengthy sentences for the murder of over 20 immigrant workers, was shot dead in his doorway. In August 2010 a jury again acquitted a gang of nationalists charged with attempting to assassinate 1990s liberal reformer Anatoly Chubais, now the head of state nanotechnology corporation Rosnano, in 2005. The apparent ringleader of the group, retired Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov of Russia’s military intelligence service, while denying the charges, has made no secret of his hatred of Chubais for “selling out the country” and his wish to see Chubais dead. Nationalist rallies led by Kvachkov and rallies such as the November 4 Russian March feature hangings of Chubais in effigy.
Underlining the threat of anti-state violence from the far right, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) declared on November 11 that it had discovered an arms and explosives cache in Pskov kept by the Slavic Union far-right group. The weapons were apparently intended for an attack on an administrative building in the city on October 31, the date that democrats rally in support of freedom of assembly.
Nationalists like Kvachkov who openly call for violence are hostile not just to “pro-Western democrats,” but to the current regime as a whole, especially now that former President Vladimir Putin has symbolically handed the reins of power over to the liberal Medvedev. Kvachkov’s Web site even details a legal suit against Putin on charges of national treason.
Furthermore, the ongoing root-and-branch army reform has mobilized opposition among veterans’ organizations and the nationalists, especially after a public verbal clash in October between civilian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the mastermind behind the reform, and a decorated colonel of an airborne regiment, over perceived irregularities. The resulting furor resulted in petitions and a 1,000-strong demonstration on November 7 of paratrooper veterans calling for the minister’s dismissal. In a disturbing twist, the head of the elite airborne troops division, General Vladimir Shamanov, who publicly sided with Serdyukov and supported the reforms, was hospitalized on October 30 after a lorry mysteriously swerved directly into his car. Investigators say it was an accident.
Apart from Serdyukov and Chubais, and potentially Medvedev, another hate figure for nationalists among government officials is the long-serving deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov. Veterans accuse him of organizing what they regard as “show trials” of a handful of Russian servicemen for crimes committed against Chechen civilians, designed, they believe, to strengthen Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
So in conjunction with these developments, if the Kremlin were to move decisively on Khimki and Moscow Region it could spark a backlash from the far right even to the point of the Kremlin becoming the target of nationalist hate as it was in the 1990s, when nationalists lambasted Boris Yeltsin’s administration as “anti-Russian.”
Luckily, nationalists, especially those from the officer corps, lack popular credibility, not least due to their well-known extensive involvement in corruption. Journalist Mikhail Beketov himself provided a vivid illustration of their double standards in April of 2007: while Russia and Boevoe Bratstvo were up in arms against a decision by the Estonian government to demolish the “Bronze Soldier” war memorial to the Soviet World War II victims in Tallinn, Beketov wrote about Strelchenko’s people in Khimki simultaneously digging up a World War II memorial containing the remains of Soviet pilots, which had the bad luck of being located on a piece of prime real estate.
His article was seized on by international media and badly discredited Russia’s position in the dispute with Estonia. “Patriot” Strelchenko was exposed as a disturber of war graves and a vandal of memorials for commercial motives. In November of 2008 Beketov was beaten to a pulp, and is to this day unable to communicate.