Kondopoga – the start of a "war of the worlds"?


Kondopoga is the richest town in Karelia, “richer even than the regional capital of Petrozavodsk, at least in terms of living standards and quality of life,” says Ekspert magazine, almost two weeks after the riots in Kondopoga.

Thanks to the Kondopoga pulp and paper mill, Kondopoga is just about the only town or city in Karelia with well-developed residential infrastructure, housing construction, sporting and cultural venues including a swimming pool (perhaps even two), and a music hall with an organ.

The pulp and paper mill, says Ekspert, “kept paying wages regularly even when other towns and cities across Russia were having serious difficulties in that area.” And these wages “aren’t all that low, by Russian standards.”

However, as the press has noted, migrants from the Caucasus were still distinguished by higher average living standards than those of Kondopoga natives.

This was also noted by a delegation of Duma members, headed by Deputy Speaker Vladimir Pekhtin, which visited Karelia this week.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper reports that when Pekhtin talked to local residents, they complained of being worse off than the Caucasus migrants.

But Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the Duma’s security committee, told Novye Izvestia: “The people who are better off should be those who work better, not those who have been here longer.”

The Kondopoga natives fail to notice, said Vasiliev, that the migrants work from dawn to dusk; all they see is “that guy just arrived and he’s already got a car, while I don’t have one.”

The Duma delegation managed to establish that Kondopoga’s outdoor markets (like similar markets in many other towns and cities across Russia) are controlled by middlemen who force villagers to sell their produce at low prices. “This makes people angry,” Vasiliev admitted, “and if the middleman is from a different ethnic group, they’re doubly angry.”

But Vasiliev didn’t see a specifically ethnic subtext in all this: “Kondopoga residents want migrants expelled from the markets, but in fact it’s law-breakers in general who should be expelled.”

Kondopoga residents also told Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin that the control of town markets by Caucasus migrants was the cause of the pogroms. However, as Novye Izvestia reports, a representative of an ethnic community told Lukin that “the problem is the drunkenness and foul language of Russian youths – people from the Caucasus never permit themselves to behave like that.”

Indeed, as Novye Izvestia goes on to say, the Duma delegation discovered that although two-thirds of Kondopoga’s adult residents work at the pulp and paper mill, some of them “have been fired for breaches of discipline and drinking.” Moreover, “over a thousand young men” in Kondopoga are unemployed, “mostly those who have left school but have not yet been called up for military service.”

Those who took part in the night-time pogroms and arson were teenagers, many of whom were “so drunk that the police were reluctant to interfere with them, fearing there would be more casualties.”

This restraint on the part of Kondopoga’s police force was noted by many observers.

Business Week magazine observed: “The most nightmarish symbol of the Kondopoga events was the sight of two police cars pulled over next to a large brawl, with no police officers getting out of their cars.”

According to Business Week, these two “cop cars” essentially symbolized “the collapse of the state machine,” demonstrating its incapacity to maintain law and order in Russia.

Izvestia reports that prominent lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who also visited Kondopoga, addressed a meeting of the Public Chamber as follows: “The local authorities simply weren’t in control, and provocateurs decided to take advantage of that.”

All this, against a backdrop of an embittered, resentful local community – and bitterness, as Kucherena pointed out, “arises solely due to lack of confidence in the authorities.”

But Kucherena was “delicately corrected” (as Izvestia puts it) by Pavel Gusev, editor-in-chief of Moskovskii Komsomolets and chairman of the Public Chamber’s media commission: “I would emphasize this: lack of confidence in the local authorities.”

Indeed, there was plenty to criticize about the local authorities.

Smart Money magazine quotes Alexander Chechelnitsky, operations chief for the Kondopoga police force, as saying that Vitali Federmesser (owner of the pulp and paper mill and de facto owner of Kondopoga) behaved in an exemplary way during the recent pogroms: “He provided food for the riot police brought in from outside, and helped out with neighborhood security patrols by delegating 150 employees to protect public order. He came to the town square on the very first day of the unrest, talked to teenagers there, urged them to remain calm. He made every effort to stop the conflict before it started. He spent a fairly large sum of money, though I don’t know exactly how much.”

Federmesser, according to Smart Money, had worked at the pulp and paper mill for 28 years by the time it was privatized in 1993; he’d been the director since 1989. Moreover, all the senior managers at the Kondopoga mill have worked there for the past 15 years. Most members of the municipal legislature are Kondopoga mill managers. Federmesser himself is among the leaders of the United Russia party’s Kondopoga branch.

“In other words, they’re Kondopogans through and through,” Smart Money explains. “And that is why the Kondopoga mill, one of Europe’s largest newsprint producers, still hasn’t been taken over by Ilim Pulp, Titan, or any of the other industry leaders. And that is why its operations are so non-transparent.”

Here’s another important circumstance: “The leading buyers of the Kondopoga mill’s paper, including foreign buyers, are companies controlled by the very same management team. It isn’t hard to see what this means.”

And here’s one of the arithmetic puzzles associated with the Kondopoga mill: in 2004, it informed the Federal Statistics Agency that it had produced $380 million worth of newsprint. Yet the company’s total reported revenues for 2004 came to $290 million – although it doesn’t just produce newsprint: it also makes cardboard and paper bags, and even runs its own fishing operations.

True, Federmesser has built a skating-rink in Kondopoga, and installed a German-made organ in its House of Culture. “But how does the town itself look? Did you notice that in the news coverage of the riots?” asks Smart Money. “Are you surprised that its residents drink, set fire to buildings, and brawl in the streets?”

The recently-fashionable topic of social responsibility for oligarchs seems to have moved into the background. Smart Money says: “Magnates like Zakhar Smushkin or Oleg Deripaska would surely find themselves in deep trouble with the Kremlin if riots broke out in any of their company towns. But local princelings like Federmesser can simply join the United Russia party – and that’s enough.”

Not quite enough: “Now they’re in a panic, organizing some sort of neighborhood security patrols. They should have thought about the situation earlier, and paid up earlier.”

So who has benefited from the Kondopoga events? Kommersant-Vlast magazine investigated.

As everyone knows – to use the language of official documents – the starting point of the pogrom was “an argument between Mozgalev and Pliyev, patrons of the Chaika bar, and bar employees Guseinov and Mamedov – an argument which escalated into a brawl.” Unofficially, investigators explain that Mozgalev and Pliyev (alias Mozgal and Pliukha), prominent figures on the local organized crime scene, had long been trying to gain control of the Chaika bar – but its owner had “obtained protection from Chechens,” and the Chechens had “reliable connections in the police force.”

Under the circumstances, the conditional “Slavs” (Pliyev is an Ossetian, notes Kommersant-Vlast) decided to act according to a long-established standard: the done thing is to give a business owner a good fright, wait to see how he responds, and then act as circumstances dictate.

So that’s what Mozgalev and Pliyev did. They ordered drinks, refused to pay, started a fight – and managed to elicit a lawless response.

Neither Mozgalev nor Pliyev were among the casualties: “Perhaps they just turned out to be very good fighters… Or perhaps they were saving themselves for more important tasks – something to do with organizing public unrest.”

It’s quite possible, says Kommersant-Vlast, that the unrest wasn’t planned from the start. If the police on duty near the Chaika bar had made a timely intervention, it would have been to the advantage of the Slavic side: “Having ten Chechens arrested at the scene of a crime would have caused a lot of trouble for the Chechen community.”

What’s more, says Kommersant-Vlast, the readiness of the “Slavic” gang to respond to the Caucasus group’s lawlessness with similar action could have revived the gagland warfare of the 1990s in Karelia. But the police, as mentioned above, preferred not to intervene. Then the criminals decided to use the people instead.

In the end, there were benefits for many. The “Kondopoga community” that rioted in the streets got publicity, forced the detested aliens to leave town, and received a promise of a “fair investigation.” Besides, it sure was “an interesting way to spend a weekend.”

The local bosses managed to run their rivals out of town, and even gained high-level support: President Katanandov of Karelia himself told migrants not to breach local traditions. Moreover, he promised to “investigate the question of proportional distribution of market stalls for business owners in the town of Kondopoga.”

The Caucaus migrants, according to Kommersant-Vlast, managed to get out of “very serious trouble” without any human casualties. What’s more, “their image changed from ‘clansmen of murderers’ to ‘victims of pogroms,’ entitled to compensation for the property they lost.”

Hoever, according to Moskovskie Novosti weekly, the Chechens who left Kondopoga after August 30 have no intention of returning. They have their own version of events, which they related to the Moskovskie Novosti journalist who visited the Aino Hotel in Petrozavodsk, where the Karelian authorities have found accommodation for the refugees.

According to the Aino Hotel group, the double murder in Kondopoga was the work of local crime gangs: Pliukha and his underlings. It was done deliberately, in order to blame the Chechens for it. And although some Chechens were indeed involved in the brawl, they’re actually nice, intelligent guys who never carry knives or any other weapons.

The Chechen refugees from Kondopoga have already been in touch with an organization that’s agreed to start procedures to obtain permanent residency in Finland for them.

Meanwhile, Magomed Matiyev, leader of Karelia’s Chechen community, told Moskovskie Novosti that he and regional leader Katanandov had reached agreement on returning Chechen families to Kondopoga.

Moskovskie Novosti asked whether anyone seriously expect to persuade these people to return, when they say they have only one aim: leaving Russia as soon as possible. Besides, it’s not just the refugees who would have to be persuaded, but the Kondopoga natives as well: “And what most of them want is just the opposite.”

Kondopoga residents maintain that crime in their town is personified by people from the Caucasus: Azeris, the Imanov brothers (who owned the Chaika restaurant), and numerous petty traders.

“They’ve made a real mess of the place,” a Kondopoga youth told Moskovskie Novosti. “You could buy any drug at all in the Chaika restaurant, round the clock… And the Chechens served as enforcers, providing cover for the Azeris. Their behavior was always arrogant and challenging. They called us pigs, and said they were running the town now, so they’d make us do their bidding. We had to put a stop to this. So we’re not hiding the fact that we drove the migrants out of town – the ethnic group we were all sick of. It’s more peaceful without them.”

“The pogroms in Kondopoga didn’t come from nowhere,” says Profil magazine. “First the police didn’t want to pay attention to the rising tension, then they couldn’t stop the rioting, and then they didn’t want to admit it was an ethnic conflict or report to the investigation team.”

Profil says: “Russian society is divided along ethnic lines – that much is visible to the naked eye. But although this does pose a serious threat, it does not mean that pogroms are certain to become popular among the masses.” If the authorities can control the situation and clamp down hard on any sign of criminal activity, “Russians and non-Russians can dislike each other as much as they want, without getting into knife-fights over it.”

This case of mass disorders started because people in Kondopoga don’t trust the police, says Profil: they believe the police force has been bribed by the Chechens. Profil also reports what a “senior Interior Ministry official” told Vladimir Petukhov from the VTsIOM polling agency: “In order for such conflicts to be defused before they reach the hot phase, the police don’t necessarily have to be honest – it would suffice if they were simply effective.”

An anonymous “detective from a Moscow police department” explained that there are only two possible models for relations between police and ethnic organized crime groups: “Either the police force itself turns into the strongest organized crime group of all – so the ethnic organized crime groups start taking action on their own against their most dangerous members, before any excesses arise. Or the police force becomes a weapon for the ethnic brigade, and then you get a situation like what happened in Karelia.”

Meanwhile, says Kommersant-Vlast, it may be said that the federal leadership has also benefited from the Kondopoga incident, to some degree; it has long been suspected of wishing to play the ethnic card in the lead-up to elections.

According to “ill-wishers,” the authorities intended to “cultivate a few artificial bugaboos painted in nationalist colors, use them to give the Russian public and the international community a good fright, and then sail through to a confident victory for the only decent presidential successor.”

However, according to Kommersant-Vlast, “anyone who organized a bloodbath like Kondopoga deliberately would have to be a scoundrel – and this country isn’t run by scoundrels, after all.”

On the other hand, “anyone who missed the opportunity to take advantage of the situation set up by others, quite spontaneously, in Kondopoga would have to be fool – and this country isn’t run by fools, after all.”

And then there’s the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), and all of its political rivals – from the Our Own (Nashi) youth movement to “common skinheads” – and the leaders of Chechnya, declaring for all to hear that they’re ready to defend the interests of Chechens anywhere, “sort of like Washington promises to protect Americans outside the United States.”

Rather than trying to identify those who have gained from the Kondopoga events, says Kommersant-Vlast, it might be simpler to say who has lost: the relatives of the dead, the six people injured in the Chaika restaurant brawl, and the Chechen families driven out of their homes.

What’s more, according to Newsweek Russia, a fairly routine event – a brawl in a relatively prosperous Karelian town – could turn out to be “a symbol of a dawning era of open interethnic conflict.”

The Russian version of such a conflict would differ greatly from the well-known European version: “Over there, most migrants are outcasts. Over here, some migrants have rapidly become elites in Russia’s regions – so any conflict carries the risk of social complications.”

According to Newsweek Russia, the confrontation will peak several years from now: “And by then, it won’t be possible to ‘cure’ it by localized police operations.”

The Levada Center polling agency reports that the “Russia for Russians” slogan is already supported, to varying degrees, by 54% of respondents.

Kommersant-Dengi magazine reports some even more revealing figures from the Moscow City Education Department: 75% of ethnic migrant teenagers say that if any ethnic conflicts happen, they would get involved and side with their own ethnic group; 78% of young Muscovites are in favor of using force to resolve such conflicts.

It looks like what awaits us really is a “war of the worlds.”