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Moscow Skinheads Target Southerners

Suspicions are growing that attacks by groups of Moscow skinheads on Caucasian traders are being carefully orchestrated
By Sanobar Shermatova

Skinhead groups have recently stepped up a campaign of violence in Moscow that may be linked to a push to drive Caucasian traders out of the city's markets.


No accurate statistics on the skinhead attacks are available as the police usually suggest domestic violence or gangland revenge was the cause. According to a Chechen student in Moscow, the families of Chechen victims of the attacks never contact the police, as they fear they will only side with the assailants. "The police would rather take the side of the skinheads who are Russian than protect Chechens, whom they consider undesirable aliens," he told IWPR.


The wave of violence can be linked to rising antagonism against migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia - which is largely a consequence of two factors.


Firstly, many Muscovites believe they are behind much of the crime in the city, a perception fuelled by the tendency of television news to cite the nationality of criminals. Secondly, the government's "counter-terrorist operation" in Chechnya has been accompanied by intensive propaganda directed against Chechens and all Caucasian ethnic groups.


A recent Internet poll conducted by the weekly Moscow News found that only 4.3 per cent of Muscovites would try to stop skinheads attacking someone. Another 58 per cent said they would simply ignore such incidents, while 37 per cent would run away.


The latest high-profile victim of skinhead violence was a Russian citizen of Afghan origin, Abdul Haqim Haqrisi, who was beaten to death in central Moscow last month by a group of skinheads. Haqrisi, 35, a father of four, worked as a translator for the Federal Migration Service.


The Afghan embassy protested to the Russian foreign ministry over the murder, but a few days later several embassies in Moscow received threatening emails in English from local skinheads, promising more murders of foreign nationals on or around Hitler's birthday on April 20.


Police went on high alert on April 19. For three days most of the capital's police were concentrated in the downtown area, with explicit instructions to suppress skinhead activity. Thanks to these extraordinary measures, no attacks occurred over this period.


Traders at one small outdoor market at Chertanovskaya Street in southern Moscow marked Hitler's birthday in their own way. On April 20 they closed the market, allegedly for cleaning, though there was no visible evidence of this. A trader explained that this and other markets in the area had shut because of the skinhead threat. "The market had to be closed because there are no police to guard it. They are all in the centre of town," she said.


The outdoor markets, with their enormous cash flows, offer prime targets for the skinhead groups. Last April and October, they attacked the markets at Tsaritsino and Yasenevo in southern Moscow. Four people died in the first incident and two in the second. Dozens were injured in both.


The largest group of traders at the outdoor markets are from the Caucasus, selling produce at what locals perceive as exorbitant prices. Since the Soviet era "southerners", usually Azerbaijanis, have had a virtual monopoly on bringing fruit, vegetables and flowers from their homeland to Moscow.


About two million Azerbaijanis live in Russia, and most are engaged in small-time trading. On average, an Azerbaijani expatriate sends 100 to 350 US dollars monthly to his family back home.


Azerbaijanis, Chechens and Dagestanis also sell products from Central Asia. Since Uzbek tomatoes and pomegranates are far pricier than similar Turkish produce, only affluent Muscovites can afford them. Uzbekistan has recently started shipping honey melons to Moscow, but the Uzbeks themselves have been unable to secure a strong presence in the market trading sector.


The hierarchy at the markets fuels Russian resentment. At Chertanovo in the south of Moscow, foreign traders rank higher than local Russian "babushkas" (old ladies) selling greens, homemade jam and sauerkraut. A local trader selling fresh parsley and dill recently had to move into the street. "I cannot afford to pay the owner as much as they do," she complained, waving at the Asian traders.


On his rare visits to the market, its Azerbaijani owner is accompanied by three bodyguards. All traders pay him kickbacks on top of the regular fee required by law. They do everything they can to keep local competition out of the market, because locals offer the same merchandise far cheaper.


Police are frequently seen driving babushkas from the market and nearby streets. The old women then have to bribe the police to stay in business, and increase the price of their produce accordingly. This takes care of the "price competition", and plays into the hands of the Asian traders. Ordinary Moscow families, spending 200 or 250 US dollars a month on food, see the Georgian, Uzbek and Tajik traders as scam artists who keep their prices artificially high by cutting out the local traders.


Who is standing behind the skinheads? One theory has it that criminal groups use the young men to do battle with their rivals on their behalf. Another version holds that the police manipulate skinhead activity to keep the traders under control. The police have been raiding outdoor markets in Moscow for two years in a bid to squeeze out traders from the Caucasus. It has not worked, as they have no legal grounds to ban traders from former Soviet Republics or the North Caucasus.


But the skinheads also have an agenda of their own. The historian Semyon Charny, in a study of their movement published recently in Moscow News, points out that in the Soviet Union their origins date back to the 1950s. Charny believes the authorities and the KGB were inactive in cracking down on the skinheads because they wanted to use them to scare the Russian population.


Nowadays skinheads are active throughout Russia. "Our aim is power," one of their leaders, Alexander Ivanov-Sukharevsky, told Moscow News. "Hitler's idea was to liberate Russia from Jewish oppression and put the Romanovs back on the throne, but God did not let Hitler achieve this at that juncture. Our mission is to continue the cause of liberating the Russian people from that oppression."


In the meantime, ethnic Russians traders have been gaining more control of the markets. It is certainly in their interest to clear them of "aliens" by whatever means. The idea that shadowy business groups are behind the phenomenon of skinhead groups may not be far-fetched.


Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent with Moscow News.


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