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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fear and Uncertainty Reign in Kondopoga

MTMargarita Slezova, mother of one of the men killed in the Kondopoga brawl, motioning toward a recent photograph of her son, Grigory Slezov, who was 27.
KONDOPOGA, Karelia -- In the aftermath of the ethnic explosion here that left two men dead, destroyed numerous businesses and kiosks, and forced hundreds to flee, Russians across the country are asking the same question: Could it happen here?

Aside from its picturesque setting on Lake Onego, Kondopoga -- with its Soviet-era streets names, Lenin statue and World War II memorial -- differs little from thousands of towns struggling to stay afloat.

There's the paper mill, employing one out of five of Kondopoga's roughly 38,000 residents. There are the same crumbling apartment blocs and storefronts that can be seen everywhere in Russia.

And, like numerous towns in post-communist Russia, there's the local outdoor market, which is dominated by dark-skinned natives from the Caucasus, much to the dismay of ethnic Russians.

The white people in Kondopoga say "hot-blooded" Azeris, Chechens and others don't respect local mores and accuse them of flaunting their wealth and paying off the police so they can sell illegal drugs.

That the recent ethnic riots were sparked by a fight at an Azeri-run restaurant, Chaika, in which natives of the Caucasus purportedly killed two ethnic Russians has only reinforced that sentiment.

"The only things Chechens understand is force," said Sergei, 46, a retired Army officer whose sons served in the North Caucasus. "Everyone gets into fights, but here we do it with our fists. They showed up with weapons and the intent to kill."

Natives of the Caucasus, many of whom fled north after the outbreak of the first Chechen war in 1994, counter that the ethnic Russians are too drunk or not enterprising enough to start their own businesses.

"If we are paying off the police, it certainly didn't do us much good," said Hamzat Magamadov, a Chechen. "When the pogrom started, we had to hide our children, who were trembling with fear. The police did nothing."

Officials from Kondopoga to the republic of Karelia's capital of Petrozavodsk to Moscow blame the riots on everything from alcohol to police ineptitude to mafia turf wars to political opportunists trying to stoke racial fires for their own ends.

But Kondopoga residents -- ethnic Russians and Caucasus natives alike -- say government authorities are unwilling to face an ugly truth: Ethnic tensions have been brewing here for years, they say, and all it took for widespread turmoil to break out was the Aug. 29 bar fight.

"This was just the last straw," said Margarita Slezova, whose son, Grigory Slezov, 27, was killed in the fight at Chaika, once one of Kondopoga's few watering holes. As she spoke, Slezova, dressed in black, tended to a small shrine for her son in her apartment.

Her son, she said, had stopped by the restaurant and bar for a drink with friends to celebrate the new apartment he had moved into with his common-law wife, Kristina, who is due to give birth to their child in November.

"I can't say for sure what happened," Slezova said, "but when things turned violent, he apparently defended himself."

Carl Schreck / MT
Flowers and broken glass adorning the veranda outside Chaika restaurant.
Prosecutors and witnesses say a group of ethnic Russians had been drinking at Chaika and began arguing with the Azeri bartender. The argument led to a fight, and soon the bartender was getting pummeled by the group of ethnic Russians. The bartender escaped, returning later with a group of Chechens bearing knives, baseball bats and iron rods. A brawl ensued, spilling onto the cement veranda outside. Along with Slezov, Sergei Usin, 32, lost his life. Several others were injured.

In the days following the brawl, mobs armed with Molotov cocktails torched Caucasian-owned businesses, including Chaika, and rampaged through the outdoor marketplace, smashing dozens of kiosks that remain unrepaired. Most of the Chechens living in Kondopoga fled. Forty-nine Chechens are at a summer camp outside Petrozavodsk under police protection. Four Chechen men, meanwhile, have been charged with murdering Slezov and Usin. A Chechen, a Dagestani and an ethnic Russian have been charged with hooliganism.

There have been numerous attempts to make sense of the chaos and violence, and the loss and confusion and uncertainty about what looms ahead.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov recently called the violence a "criminal showdown" and a "provocation of interethnic violence," Interfax reported.

Alexander Belov, head of the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration, or DPNI, turned up in Kondopoga soon after the riots to address a crowd of 2,000 angry white people. He called for the expulsion of natives of the Caucasus lacking residence permits.

Everyone blames the police. "The only people the police are protecting right now are themselves," said Yury Zakharnyov, a friend of Usin's who is a turbine operator at the paper mill. A police officer speaking at a recent town meeting was shouted down by the 300 residents in attendance.

What's clear is the devastation and recrimination, and the lingering fear that, in a way, nothing has changed.

"Look at those empty stands," said Artur Galstyan, an Armenian shoe trader at the Kondopoga market, pointing to a dozen kiosks. "Those were empty before the pogrom. Nobody was stopping the Russians from selling anything there. But all they do is drink."

Galstyan said he wasn't afraid of being attacked; Armenians, after all, like Russians, are Christian. But he conceded that locals had trouble distinguishing between different peoples. "Azeri, Chechen, Armenian -- it's all the same to them," he said.

Like Galstyan, a beefy 37-year-old, not all natives of the Caucasus have left town. And a modicum of normalcy has returned. Police were on constant patrol.

But an uneasy current persists. "No to Gooks!" is scrawled on a kiosk hawking honey; on Proletarskaya Ulitsa, Kondopoga's main drag, windows had been smashed in and building facades charred.

An odor redolent of a steaming landfill emanated from Chaika. Broken glass, stray clothing, a one-legged table and random blocks of wood and concrete were strewn on the veranda. Passersby don't seem terribly fazed by the rubble, but people have laid flowers in front of the restaurant in memory of Slezov and Usin.

No one appeared to have been lulled into thinking the violence was over for good, especially if the Chechens who fled the town return. "I don't think things will remain calm," Slezova said.

Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, said that ethnic violence similar to the riots in Kondopoga had broken out in several Russian regions in recent years and that a Kondopoga-like scenario could happen anywhere.

"With such a high level of xenophobia," he said, "such conflicts could emerge across the country."

The natives of the Caucasus who once lived in Kondopoga seemed aware of that much. Satsyta Visayeva, who came to the town 12 years ago with her husband, said she didn't know where the family would go after they left the summer camp, which is outside Petrozavodsk. There is talk of some of the self-exiled Chechens seeking political asylum in Finland or elsewhere in Scandinavia.

"Maybe they can come back eventually," Slezova added, her crisp speech suddenly breaking into a sob. "But only later. The city needs time to calm down."

Staff Writer Anatoly Medetsky contributed to this report from Moscow.