MOSCOW -- Police will track down and punish the hooligans and racists who rampaged in Moscow this weekend, President Dmitry Medvedev declared, warning that Russia itself could be torn apart if seething ethnic tensions spin out of control.
About 5,000 people, mainly boys and young men, rallied for hours on a square just outside the Kremlin, chanting "Russia for Russians!" as well as an obscene slur against people from Russia's Caucasus region. They brutally beat some dark-skinned passers-by, and when police moved against the demonstrators, rioting broke out that injured more than 30 people.
In addition, one person from Kyrgyzstan was stabbed to death by unidentified assailants in southern Moscow early Monday, police spokesman Gennady Bogachev said.
Resentment is rising among Slavic Russians over the growing presence in Moscow and elsewhere of people from the Caucasus, the home of numerous ethnic groups, most of them Muslim. People from other parts of the former Soviet Union, including Central Asia and Azerbaijan, also face strong ethnic discrimination in Russia.
The latest violence raised fresh doubts about the government's ability to control the rising tide of xenophobia, which poses a grave threat to Russia's existence as multiethnic state. It also embarrassed the Kremlin just days after FIFA awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and raised questions about Russia's ability to safely hold international sporting events, including the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Medvedev sought to assuage all those concerns.
"Everything is under control in the country and in Moscow," Medvedev wrote on Twitter late Sunday. "We will deal with everyone who did filthy things. With everyone. Have no doubts about it."
He warned at a meeting Monday with officials that leaving hate crimes unpunished would "threaten the stability of our state."
But despite his pledge, others said the slow and bungled police response to Saturday's rally could embolden the racist groups and trigger more violence.
Medvedev sternly demanded that police use all necessary force to put down riots. "Police can and must use all the power and means given to them by law. Chaos in the streets must not be allowed," he said at the meeting.
The weekend rally began as a protest against the killing of a fan of the Spartak soccer team, who was shot with rubber bullets in a fight at a bus stop last week. Those suspected of killing him are from Russia's Caucasus region.
Some sports fans are linked with neo-Nazi and other ultranationalist groups, which mushroomed in Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said the radical groups were responsible for instigating the violence this time and manipulated the sports fans to further their own interests.
The rioters called for abolishing a law that makes it a crime to incite ethnic hatred, the Moscow police chief said.
Hate attacks in Russia peaked in 2008, when 115 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded, according to Sova, an independent watchdog.
Recent crackdowns on the most radical nationalist groups helped reduce the number of hate killings to 35 in the first 10 months of this year. But Sova deputy head Galina Kozhevnikova said racists and neo-Nazis "smelled blood" during the weekend riots, and an increase in racially motivated crimes is likely to result.
"If the authorities fail to investigate the violence and harshly punish its masterminds, that will signal that the neo-Nazis are getting the upper hand against a weak government," she told The Asssociated Press.
Many Russian commentators noted links between nationalist groups and some part of officialdom. While Russian police quickly and brutally disperse peaceful protests by anti-Kremlin activists, some nationalist groups have been allowed to hold their rallies freely in recent years.
Some analysts say hardliners within the government may be supporting the nationalists to justify tight Kremlin controls and fend off efforts to open up Russia's political system.
Kozhevnikova said her group has seen signals that the extremist groups have recently gotten fresh funding from unidentified backers.
Aliy Totorkulov, the head of the Russian Congress of the Caucasus Peoples, said the violence was likely to provoke a response from ethnic groups in the Caucasus, which could be hard to control. "Evil only brings evil," he said.
The rampaging crowd next to the Kremlin caught the Moscow police off guard. The police numbers were clearly insufficient and their actions indecisive. The demonstrators hurled stones and flares at the police, who after the rally ended let them enter a nearby subway station that was packed with passengers.
Kozhevnikova said her group has heard of more than 30 hate attacks around Moscow in the hours after the violent rally near the Kremlin. She said some of them occurred on the subway and left many victims severely injured.
"People on the subway were left absolutely unprotected," she said.
Russian news reports said several other attacks on migrants occurred overnight, but there was no immediate police comment on them.
Violence also broke out in St. Petersburg over the weekend, where hundreds of hooligans smashed car windows and clashed with police. In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, more than 1,000 students gathered to protest the death of an 18-year old student who died last month after being beaten by university students from the nearby Caucasus region. The demonstrators chanted "Go Russians!" and "Russians are united!"
The weekend riots were preceded by a rally earlier last week when hundreds of soccer fans blocked a busy Moscow highway just a few kilometers (miles) northwest of the Kremlin. The police responded after a long delay and detained no one.
Spartak Moscow fans also invaded the field and attacked security staff at a Champions League match in Slovakia last week and the club faces possible sanctions from UEFA.