Thursday, October 25, 2012

Window on Eurasia: A Kondopoga in Belarus?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 25 – A clash between North Caucasians and Roma in a Minsk market last weekend has sparked fears that Belarus, the site of few ethnic clashes in post-Soviet times, may be about to experience its own version of Kondopoga, the 2006 fight in a Karelian city between Chechens and Russians that has come to symbolize ethnic problems in Russian cities.

            Rosbalt’s Maksim Shveits reports that “for Belarusians, this [clash last Saturday] was a shock” because their country has “so few immigrants from the south” and because the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has not been slow to crack down even on the appearance of ethnic divisions there (
            In a dispute that reportedly began over the price of a mobile telephone, North Caucasian and Roma sellers exchanged blows and then bullets, and 43 of the participants were arrested. All of those involved in the fighting, the militia says, are in jail, “and none of those detained has been let go.”

            “Belarusian markets, in contrast to Russian ones have never know massive inter-ethnic fights,” Shveits says.  Almost all of the traders in them are Belarusians, there is less money involved because of Belarusian poverty and hence less corruption, and “immigrants from the North and South Caucasus are no more numerous than Vietnamese.”

            But perhaps the chief reason things have been quiet on this front, the Rosbalt journalist says, is the attitudes and actions of both Belarusians themselves and their government.  He notes that when several years ago, two Chechens “raped three students” in a hostel, Belarusian students “beat not only the rapists but also all ‘blacks’ whom they saw” near the scene.

            And the Belarusian militia, instead of simply trying to maintain law and order, “did everything to ‘cleanse’ the [district center where this took place] of persons of Caucasus nationality, kicking them out of apartments they had rented under various pretexts.” The Belarusian government has been quite willing to expel them from the country.

            The Rosbalt journalist says that Belarusians owe the quiescence of the small diasporas to the tough line President Lukashenka has adopted, a line many Russians would like their own government to take, and points to the latter’s decision to expel, despite agreements with Russia, any migrants who cause any problems for the Belarusian regime.

            Whether Lukashenka’s toughness will continue to work, however, is now very much in doubt.  Over the last year, Shveits writes, “the number of persons of Caucasus nationality arriving in Belarus has risen significantly,” some of them seeking access to the European Union and others interesting in exploiting Belarus’s low prices by selling its goods elsewhere.

            Nonetheless, there are some grounds for hope, Shveits continues.  There are relatively few major markets, and immigrants from the Caucasus prefer to stay in Minsk, although some of them have now appeared in smaller cities as well. Clashes in the latter may take place without any notice in the media.

            The exact number of immigrants in Belarus is unknown, but experts say that there are “approximately 100,000 Muslims” there, some of whom are indigenous, others from the Middle Volga or Crimea, and the newest wave from the Caucasus and even from the countries of Central Asia (

                The Belarusian umma, Zorina Kanapatskaya reports this week, is divided into 24 communities, and there exist eight mosques, far fewer than existed before 1917 but far more than the one that was open at the end of Soviet times. She says that relations between the faiths in Belarus are relatively good, “an honor to the tolerant Belarusian people.”


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