Staunton, June 15 – Unconfirmed rumors that some Roma in Penza Oblast had raped a Russian woman have led to armed clashes between that community and Russians bent on vengeance. Several people have been hospitalized, and one has died. Officials and Roma leaders have failed to calm the situation, and Russians are blocking a highway to get wider attention.
As in most such cases, both the origins of the conflict and its course remain in dispute; but three things are clear and significant. First, the anger of the local Russian population exceeds anything that local or regional officials were prepared for. Their appeals for calm have failed (penzainform.ru/news/incidents/2019/06/14/nachalnik_politcii_oblasti-chemodanovtcam_ya_budu_s_vami_do_kontca.html).
Second, the local Russians are convinced that only by attracting outside attention are they going to get what they assume to be justice, something that at least a few of them suggest means expelling the Roma from their community of Chemodanovka. Oblast officials have now intervened, but they appear to be having no more success than local ones in calming things.
And third – and certainly most important – this effort by local people to raise the stakes in a conflict by drawing in Moscow is a prime example of an unintended consequence of the Kremlin’s much-trumpeted announcement that it will rate governors on their ability to keep the situation in their regions quiet.
The Penza Russians clearly have decided that they can exploit this situation by calling Moscow’s attention to it, forcing local and regional officials to back down lest the officials get in trouble with the center or forcing Moscow to intervene on their behalf, convinced that the Kremlin will back Russians over Roma.
To the extent that the Penza pogrom may be a harbinger of similar calculations elsewhere, the events in Chemodanovka aren’t simply the latest clash between Russians and Roma but an indication of the ways in which underlying ethnic tensions are interacting with state policy and making the situation in the Russian Federation more unstable.