While the protesters chanted slogans against the government, their main target was non-Russian minorities. When police tried to disperse the increasingly belligerent crowd, the protest degenerated into a riot. Protestors fled to the metro, where they set upon anyone with dark skin they could find, injuring dozens.These two Moscow protests – Bolotnaya and Manezhnaya – are the two faces of what Russian democracy could look like should the grip of Putin and his United Russia party be loosened. Russian leaders, including Putin, have long argued that the dark force of Russian nationalism lurks just below the surface and that a strong hand was needed to keep it in check. The Bolotnaya protests are an encouraging sign that other, healthier forces are at work in Russian society – ones that the Kremlin would be smart to engage in a dialogue about political reform. A controlled, consensual process of liberalization will give legitimacy to the forces of Bolotnaya. A resistance to fundamental reform will create more Manezhnayas.
The Kremlin argues that extreme nationalism is an elemental force in Russian society, but in fact, the authorities have done much to strengthen and legitimate it as part of their strategy for keeping power. While banning hardcore nationalist groups such as Slavic Union, the Kremlin has co-opted Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats, who still spout extreme rhetoric, but vote reliably with the government and provide a safe outlet for nationalist discontent. The Kremlin’s notorious rabble-rousing youth group Nashi plays a similar role.After the Manezhnaya riots, Putin laid a wreath on the grave of the soccer fan whose murder touched off the violence, and hinted that the authorities would consider starting to curb migration to Moscow and other cities. This tolerance for nationalism in politics helps legitimate extremism. It also contributes to the raft of ethnically motivated crimes from which Russia suffers, including dozens of murders each year and frequent brawls between skinheads and minority youths.
Even as they play the nationalist card, Russia’s leaders invoke the specter of extremism as an excuse for maintaining their rigid, controlled political system. They argue that, in the words of one well-connected analyst, Putin is more liberal than 90% of the population, and that mass mobilization would only empower the groups who rioted on Manezhnaya Square, not the disaffected middle class protestors at the forefront of the Bolotnaya protests.As in the Middle East, the danger that liberalization would benefit the extremists is real but probably overstated, especially if the Kremlin pursues genuine political reform that addresses many of the demands made by the Bolotnaya protestors. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia’s nationalists are not a well-organized, well-financed underground, but rather a motley collection of mostly disaffected young people without a coherent ideology or political program.