MOSCOW -- Moscow's police chief questioned Wednesday whether civil liberties are even practical when authorities need to keep law and order, the latest sign that ethnic tensions in Russia could lead to new democratic rollbacks.
His remarks backed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's comments on a possible restoration of strict Soviet era-restrictions on movement into big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, a move that seems to target dark-complexioned people in the Caucasus.
Kremlin critics say ethnic tensions are being deliberately fanned as a pretext to introduce repressive legislation ahead of Russia's 2012 presidential election. They say the measures floated by authorities could cripple attempts to hold peaceful anti-government demonstrations.
A young Slavic soccer fan died earlier this month in a fight with six men from the southern Caucasus, leading to a nationalist backlash that has spilled into racist violence on the streets. A protest outside the Kremlin saw thousands of Slavic hooligans chanting racist slogans, raising their hands in a Nazi salute and beating nonwhites.
Since then, police briefly detained thousands of nationalist protesters to head off further unrest and arrested the soccer fan's suspected killers.
On Wednesday, Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev asked whether Russians' freedom of movement was partly to blame for the violence.
"All these problems are more difficult to solve compared to a time when a much tougher registration system was in place," he said.
President Dmitry Medvedev, in contrast, has suggested that participants in unauthorized rallies get a mandatory prison sentence rather than a fine and a warning.
Putin and Medvedev have said one of them will run for president in 2012, but they won't compete. Signs continue to appear that Putin, thought to retain real control over Russia since his eight-year stint as president ended in 2008, will remain at the helm.
After meeting with soccer fans Tuesday, Putin laid flowers at the grave of the slain fan, Yegor Sviridov, a member of Spartak Moscow's fan group.
Some criticized the move, saying Putin was siding with a known extremist in Sviridov.
Putin has squeezed democratic norms since arriving in office in 2000, including switching from having regional governors elected to making them Kremlin appointees.
While ethnic Russians make up four-fifths of Russia's population of 142 million, the country is also home to some 180 ethnic groups. The Caucasus region, with its mountainous terrain and isolated valleys, hosts at least 100 ethnicities including Chechens, who have waged two separatist wars against Moscow after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Analysts say the Chechen conflict, with atrocities and killings of civilians committed by both Russian forces and militant Islamists, has triggered the rise of xenophobia and neo-Nazism in Russia as well as growing resentment of Caucasus natives to ethnic Russians and Moscow's rule.
Despite poverty and instability, the Caucasus region has Russia's highest birth rate. Tens of thousands of young people leave the region each year, heading to central Russia and Siberian oil towns in search of jobs and a better future.