10.28.12

Russia Cracks Down on North Caucasus Wedding Gunfire

Putin’s party wants to ban gun salutes at traditional North Caucasus nuptials, where stray wedding bullets are causing mayhem.‬

A caravan of cars with tinted windows and streaming ribbons stretches along the highway. Drum music accompanies the proud procession; gun-shot salutes ring out, calling neighbors to join the happy event. Guests gather outside in the courtyards of apartment buildings to clap, fire off more guns, and cheer. Couples perform the Lezginka, the traditional dance of the region.

This is a typical scene for a wedding in the North Caucasus, and for many years, one rarely seen outside the remote, mountainous land. But as Muslims from the area have flooded into central Russia, they’ve brought their traditions with them—and the nuptials are causing a public uproar in the country’s major cities, where residents are terrified of being injured by stray wedding bullets.

On September 30, Moscow police stopped an unruly wedding caravan of nine luxury vehicles—including several BMWs, a Ferrari, a Mercedes, and a Porsche—that had been winding its way across the capital towards the Kremlin, firing off guns and blasting music as it passed. Fifteen men clad in wedding finery, mostly from the Dagestan Republic, were detained. The wedding wagon itself was stopped by authorities on Mokhovaya Street, a stone’s throw from Red Square, right after one of the guests had trained his gun filled with rubber bullets on passing cars (in Dagestani tradition, it is taboo to transit in front of a wedding wagon). Later, a criminal case was opened against one of the wedding guests after a pedestrian complained that her 3-year-old son had been injured in the cheek by a shard from a broken headlamp, apparently from a car that had allegedly crossed in front of the wedding party’s path.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev supported the authorities’ actions, saying that if a person had shot off guns in a similar manner in New York City, “police would have opened fire and would have been justified in doing so.”

[Chechen leader] Kadyrov also banned gun salutes at weddings, but the power of tradition has won out.

This week, the government formulated an even stronger response to the wedding-party mayhem. President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, moved forward with an initiative to punish unauthorized shooters in residential areas by confiscating their firearms, fining them up to $1,700, and potentially even jailing them for up to 15 days.

But the wedding-party gunfire has not subsided, at least for the present. Earlier this week, a wedding caravan with 20 vehicles celebrated with a gunfire salute in Moscow, and police detained a 38-year-old driver of a red Bentley GT outside a restaurant in the capital’s Sokolniki district. And in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic—where police and special officers die in shootouts with Islamist insurgents every other week—men fired guns into the air to protest the news of United Russia’s proposed legislation.

“Our men continued to shoot guns at wedding parties this week, in spite of Moscow’s restrictions,” said the Chechen civic society activist Kheda Saratova.

Autumn is the wedding season in the North Caucasus, where parties can last up to two days. Traditionally, the groom is not present during the first day of the wedding, and the bride is supposed to stand in a corner without saying a word while the party goes on around her, as guests dance and blast off their Kalashnikovs outside and try to get the bride to speak by presenting her with gifts of cash.

The use of celebratory firearms is not limited to weddings; the people of North Caucasus have been known to do a gun salute for any significant occasion. On the day that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov celebrated the birth of his first son in November 2005, crowds of admirers shot pistols and even machine guns into the air in honor of the baby. (Chechen women said they had to hide their children inside that day, terrified that another war was about to begin.) Last July, Kadyrov also banned gun salutes at weddings, but the power of tradition has won out, and gunfire continues to be heard at many local nuptials.

Most of Russia’s human-rights groups support the proposed change in the legislation. “What seems fun for one group of people is scary for another,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Civic Assistance Committee, who for the past 20 years has monitored human-rights violations roiling the North Caucasus. “Russian children should not be used to the sound of gunshots.”

For their part, Russian Muslims find it humiliating that the Russian parliament would push the legislation during the week of the most important Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr. “The initiative is an obvious populist act—United Russia is playing up the wedding story, which is popular among nationalists,” says Murat Musayev, a Chechen lawyer based in Moscow. Musayev added that he saw no difference between shooting off cannons or fireworks during important civic occasions and shooting off guns, particularly those that only use rubber or plastic bullets.

“Russian legislation already has enough laws to punish street misdemeanors, hooliganism, etc.—this specific change is part of a massive nationalist pressure that will just incite hate crimes,” Musavey said.

Ethnic minorities say that there is no political will in the Kremlin to fight increasing xenophobia in Russia. A Moscow-based NGO that monitors extremism, Sova, counted 154 nationalist hate crimes this year, of which 11 were purported murders.

On Friday, more than 150,000 Moscow Muslims kneeled down to perform Eid prayers along streets cordoned off from traffic. With only four mosques for 1.5 million worshippers in the city, many believers had to stand outside and lay their prayer mats on the sidewalk, in slushy puddles of rain and snow. Later, men soaked in sleet walked along the Garden Ring, oblivious to the weather and glowing with happy smiles. On this day, at least, Moscow had to respect their traditions.

Reporting for this article was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crises Reporting.