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Government officials in Yakutia spoke in support of recent anti-migrant protests. Now, they’re blaming external provocations for the unrest.

Meduza
Yakutia’s governor, Aisen Nikolaev, meets with local residents. Yakutsk, March 18, 2019Vadim Skriabin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Anti-migrant protests have rocked Yakutia since mid-March. They were triggered by a rape and kidnapping case.

On March 17, a 23-year-old man from Kyrgyzstan forced a young woman into his car, drove her to an unpopulated area, and raped her. He then forcibly brought her with him to the residence of two of his friends, where the woman managed to escape. The next day, three men were arrested. One was charged with rape and kidnapping, and the other two were charged with holding a person against their will.

News about the young woman’s kidnapping and rape became a source of turmoil in Yakutsk, the capital city of Yakutia. Word spread quickly through messenger apps, and that same evening, approximately 200 people gathered on the city’s Komsomolskaya Square in an unplanned protest.

In the following days, threats targeting migrants began appearing on the Internet, including videos that displayed aggressive behavior toward residents of Yakutia who moved there from Central Asia. Verbal and physical attacks on people of Central Asian descent were also reported. Vegetable kiosks in Yakutsk were closed, as were certain restaurants, taxi lines, and other businesses that employ a large number of workers from outside Russia. On March 19, more than 80 public buses did not complete their routes; many of their drivers are also from Central Asia.

Local authorities organized a town hall, and more than 6,000 people attended. The mayor of Yakutsk called on her audience to demonstrate “who the real boss is in this city.”

The town hall took place on March 18 in the Triumph sports complex. Dissatisfied residents of Yakutsk and other nearby cities heard speeches from Governor Aisen Nikolaev and Mayor Sardana Avksentieva.

Avksentieva told them, among other things, that “As a woman, I took these events very hard. We were patient for so long, and today, we lost any patience we had left. We are now united, and we must bring about order. We must show who the real boss is in this city, in our homeland.”

Nikolaev noted that he “understood the motives of the residents of Yakutsk who attended the spontaneous protest.” “This matter has resonated so forcefully in our society precisely because the impudent acts in question were committed by migrants, by citizens of Kyrgyzstan,” the governor added. “We local residents occasionally make mistakes as well. We buy cheap fruit from them. We ride in their taxis. Why don’t we ask whether they have a registration card, whether they pay taxes?”

After the town hall, the situation in Yakutsk began to stabilize. Now, local authorities argue that external forces initiated the protests as a form of provocation.

On March 18, Yakutsk’s Investigative Committee announced that the young man charged with rape and kidnapping had pleaded guilty to the charges against him. Soon afterward, the situation in Yakutsk began to stabilize: vegetable stands and other trading points reopened, and taxis and buses returned to the streets.

On March 26, Aisen Nikolaev held a press conference for a limited group of journalists. He told them that he now believes the spontaneous protest on Komsomolskaya Square to have been “an organized provocation on the part of certain forces.” The governor added, “We know that [protestors] were brought in specially. We know that most of them were drunk. We know that there were no specific demands apart from ‘Let’s go break things and set them on fire.’”

Nikolaev claimed that those who attended the town hall in the Triumph stadium were primarily interested in Yakutsk’s economic development, not in immigration issues. “The questions that were raised were generally economic because a relatively large number of migrants holds various jobs here, including in industries were local staff could easily fill the same positions — as taxi drivers, for example,” Nikolaev said.

The regional leader also claimed that federal media organizations had intentionally distorted the situation on the ground by turning “three hooliganism cases” into articles about pogroms, burnings, and murders. Nikolaev did not say to which specific publications he was referring.

On March 26, Takie Dela published an interview with Sardana Avksentieva, the mayor of Yaktusk. In it, Avksentieva said the protests that took place on March 17 and 18 had allowed dissatisfied local residents to “let off some steam.” When she mentioned that those same residents were dissatisfied with the number of migrants living in Yakutia, Avksentieva, like the region’s governor, said the unrest of recent days had been caused by social tension and economic difficulties.

“Without a doubt, this crime on its own cannot be said to have caused [what happened]. We understand that it was a trigger. [People were angered] by the audacity of this act. However, the emotional state among locals [also played a role]. We’re talking about poverty rates, unemployment, and debt among the population as a whole.”

Vyacheslav Shushurikhin

Translation by Hilah Kohen