MOSCOW // The murder of a Muslim community leader in Moscow is a reminder that despite a drop in hate crimes, ethnic minorities in Russia can still be targets of violence in a country long plagued by ultranationalist rage.
Metin Mekhtiyev, a Russian citizen of Azeri origin who was once a key figure at the Moscow-based Islamic Cultural Centre of Russia, was stabbed to death in Moscow last week in what his colleagues say was a hate crime.
Investigators said Mr Mekhtiyev, 33, was the victim of a robbery and the attackers had stolen his mobile phone and some money. But his former colleagues have challenged that claim. They say the murder carried all the trademarks of an ethnically motivated murder.
Abdul Vakhed Niyazov, the centre's president and a leading member of Russia's Council of Muftis, claimed four men and one woman were involved in the attack, which occurred near one of Moscow's busiest train stations. His body was found with multiple stab wounds to the face and neck.
"They bring along the girl as a cover story to be able to say the victim attacked her and the men jumped in to save her," Mr Niyazov said. "And the fact that they cut his throat points to a ritualistic murder."
Russia's supreme court closed the Islamic Cultural Centre last year citing "legal problems," though Mr Niyazov has claimed the FSB, Russia's security service, had a hand in the closure.
Xenophobia has long been a problem in post-Soviet Russia. A steady influx of migrants from the former Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia has stoked fears among working-class Russians of being squeezed out of the job market, said Tanya Lokshina, director of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch. The growing migrant population has driven many to sympathise with radical groups.
In 2011 alone, more than 13 million migrants moved to Russia, according to Federal Migration Service statistics.
Although the number of ethnically motivated murders in Russia has dropped significantly in recent years - from 109 in 2008 to 20 in 2011, according to the SOVA Center monitoring group - Ms Lokshina says far-right groups are growing more prominent.
"The ironic parallel to this decrease in the number of violent hate crimes is that xenophobic and nationalist attitudes in the country have been just as dramatically on the rise," she said. "The nationalists have become more visible and more active in their propaganda."
Part of their visibility has been aided by what experts say is the Kremlin's tacit approval of some nationalist groups in hopes of consolidating authority behind Mr Putin and the ruling United Russia party.
For instance, the Kremlin has regularly granted permission for the annual Russian March, during which thousands of ultranationalists march through Moscow chanting racist slogans and calling for the expulsion - or worse - of Russia's migrants.
Analysts said that, while the Kremlin often uses nationalists as a scare tactic to show that if it wasn't for the Kremlin's firm rule Russia would descend into chaos, the plan may be backfiring.
Disgruntled nationalists have turned increasingly against the Kremlin over its perceived failure to curb immigration, said Pal Kolsto, a researcher on post-Soviet nationalism at the University of Oslo.
"Mr Putin has realised that he cannot control them, so now he has decided that he'd rather have them out in the cold, but now they are joining up with the liberal opposition," said Mr Kolsto.
With Mr Putin set to retake the presidency next month, there are few signs that Russia's treatment of ethnic minorities, which experts say is ambiguous at best and repressive at worst, will get any better.
Moscow, for instance, while home to about two million Muslims, still has only four mosques, which forces large numbers of Muslims - many of them young migrant workers - to pray in the streets on holy days.
Ms Lokshina, from the monitoring group, said that while Mr Mekhtiyev's murder has yet to be labelled a definitive hate crime, the killing still sends chilling signals to Moscow's Muslim community.
"Any faithful Muslim living in Moscow who reads this horrid piece of news will think that 'Oh, they must be going after Muslims,'" she said. "It's perceived as not only a crime, but as a crime of a very specific inflammatory nature."