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Russian governor blames America, fake news in aftermath of deadly ethnic violence

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Penza Oblast Governor Ivan Belozertsev. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In the wake of ethnic clashes among residents of a Russian village that left one person dead and led riot police and the Kremlin to step in, the regional governor has found faraway targets to accuse of fanning the flames.

“Unfortunately, America and the West are directing a lot of money here to train people who receive this money,” Penza Oblast Governor Ivan Belozertsev told a crowd in Chemodanovka on June 16. “Such people exist in every region and we have them here, too — those who do not solve the problem but destabilize the situation.”

Belozertsev expanded on his comments in an official message in which he singled out what he called disseminators of “fake news” about the deadly brawl that broke out on June 13 between Roma and other locals in Chemodanovka, a village of about 6,000 located just outside the regional capital, Penza.

“Since the conflict in Chemodanovka, we have seen the mass distribution of disinformation on social media,” he wrote on the regional government website. The desire of the “provocateurs,” he alleged, is “to sow panic among our people via the intrusion of frankly unreliable data presented as real facts.”

‘Playing The Ethnic Card’

Noting that there were laws in place to combat such “fake news,” Belozertsev called on the relevant authorities to evaluate the situation. “We will not allow the deception of our people, nor the use of this tragedy to rock the situation and play the ethnic ‘card’,” he wrote, concluding that “our main task is to protect citizens.”

Belozertsev’s office did not respond to questions from RFE/RL asking for examples of fake news dissemination and other specifics as of publication of this article.

The June 13 brawl reportedly stemmed from unconfirmed rumors that members of the local Roma community had attempted to rape a 12-year-old girl. A crowd formed to confront the Roma community and what local media describe as a “war” broke out in the center of Chemodanovka between two large groups.

According to the regional Interior Ministry branch, five people were injured, including two who were hospitalized. One of those hospitalized — a 34-year-old man — later died of head injuries, and the other remains in intensive care, state news agency RIA-Novosti reported, citing the regional ministry.

Governor Belozertsev addressed protesting Chemodanovka residents on June 14 and gave assurances that “everyone would face justice” in accordance with the law, saying that working groups would be formed under his supervision and that “we will be together.” In an additional step, Belozertsev’s office announced a temporary ban on the sale of alcohol.

The same day, the spokesman for the Penza region’s Roma community offered condolences to the relatives of the deceased in a video message published by the news outlet Penzainform.

“We do not want to have any conflict with anyone in the city,” Andrei Ogly said. “We want the guilty to be punished for the tragedy that occurred…. This misfortune must somehow be resolved and the conflict stopped.”

Blistering Statement

Federal authorities, clearly dissatisfied with the local response, announced on June 15 that they were taking over the criminal case, and an envoy of President Vladimir Putin was sent to Chemodanovka, which lies 550 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

In a blistering statement issued on June 15, the Russian Investigative Committee said that its chairman, Aleksandr Bastrykin, had ordered that “all the perpetrators, including officials, law enforcement, and preventive bodies who ignored the warning signals from local residents and did not take proper and timely measures to stabilize the situation, be established and brought to criminal responsibility.”

Later the same day, presidential envoy Igor Komarov met with Belozertsev and instructed him to report daily on the investigation and to ensure public safety, according to the local news website SMI58.

As of June 17, more than 170 people had been questioned and 15 detained in connection with the violence.

According to the Investigative Committee, one of them is suspected of murder in the death of the 34-year-old man who succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.

The unidentified man was buried on June 16.