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Russia Profile
December 26, 2007
The Lengthening Shadow of Racism, Overshadowed
The Russian Government has Turned a Blind Eye to Racists Protests Under the Banner of Nationalism

By Matt Siegel

It has been a big year in the news for the Russian Federation. A Russian submarine planted a flag in the seabed underneath a sheet of ice well above the Arctic Circle. A spat over a Soviet-era statue set off riots in Tallinn, and President Putin led his party, United Russia, to a landslide victory under, as many observers would label, dubious conditions. These were just some of the events that combined to make 2007 a very lonely year to be murdered on the basis of your religion or ethnicity in Russia.

Despite flagging media coverage, a casualty perhaps of the years high political intrigue, hate crimes continued to increase at an alarmingly steady rate in 2007. Experts, citing a lack of political will, corruption and the worsening demographic crises in the regions, are sounding the alarm about what many see as a forgotten, but precariously ticking time bomb.

I think its partly a desire to avoid the problem, to deny that discrimination and racism are a problem, said Paul Legendre, Interim Director of the Fighting Discrimination Program at Human Rights First. Admitting that hate crimes are growing and increasing requires a serious response. It requires the authorities to tackle a complicated problem. There doesnt seem to be the political will at the highest level to admit that this is a problem.

According to research conducted by the Sova Information and Analytic Center, an NGO that tracks hate crimes and hate speech in Russia, the number of documented hate crimes in 2007 rose by at least 25 percent over 2006. This matches a trend that monitors have been describing since roughly the year 2002, although 2007 does appear to have been slightly worse than expected. Ahead of the release of their final statistics for 2007, the Sova Center spoke with Russia Profile about the trends theyve witnessed this year.

We have about 20 to 25 percent growth every year. Thats what we can count. If we talk about attacks, people who were wounded or beaten, from January to October we had 546 people seriously attacked and 57 of them were murdered, said Alexander Verkhovsky, Sovas director.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was plagued with what became one of the largest and most violent neo-Nazi movements in the world. Several high profile cases, such as the 2005 shooting death of prominent anti-fascist activist Nikolai Girenko and the brutal murder of a 9-year-old mixed race girl in St. Petersburg in 2006, propelled the issue to the forefront of international media coverage. Since then, much to the chagrin of rights workers who insist that the problem is rapidly deteriorating, the international press seems to have largely forgotten about it.

I think there is a sense of frustration that its not getting in the press, that the political leadership is not taking it seriously and that as a result the urgency is not trickling down to the various bodies that need to take it seriously on a day-to-day level, remarked a frustrated Legendre.

Things have only gotten worse as Russias population fell during the 1990s at rates previously unseen in modern demography. Migrant laborers, many of them Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus, filled the void, fueling a sense that Russia is under siege by foreign invaders. This sentiment is only exacerbated by the wars in Chechnya and continued separatist violence in Abkhazia and Ossetia. The feelings are especially pervasive in regions with little historical contact with Muslims. It is there, in the regions, that analysts have seen the most disturbing trends.

Thats the big story of the past five or six years, that its not just happening in the large urban centers, even though the situations supposed to be that Moscow is really bad. Its happening in Kondopoga and no one had heard of Kondopoga before last year. Its a little backwater, said Nickolai Butkevich, director of research and advocacy at UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. And thats not the only place the riots have happened ... and then you wonder whats happening that we havent heard about.

Whereas infrastructure exists for tracking these types of crimes in European Russia and the larger regional centers, there is no way of maintaining reliable data for crimes committed in the thousands of small villages and cities that dot the enormous Russian landscape. It is in precisely in these areas, decimated by the depopulation of the 1990s and lacking jobs and many basic services where racist violence is rising. This had led some experts to suggest that the actual number of hate crimes in 2007 dwarfs the officially recognized statistics.

Now this growth is more geographical than local, said Verkhovsky. I mean that now, new skinhead and neo-Nazi groups appear in much smaller cities, and we dont have information from these cities I dont see any stabilization. Its a permanent growth of violence everywhere and we underestimate it because we havent enough information.

There seems to be a consensus that the responsibility for this disturbing trend ultimately lies with those at the top of Russias increasingly vertical power structure, namely with President Putin and those former special service agents in power, the siloviki. There is a sense that despite publicly condemning hate crimes, Putin and others in his coterie see some political expediency in the issue. At best, this prevents them from condemning ultra-nationalism and, at worst, proves a useful tool for manipulating public opinion.

Nowhere was this clearer than during the governments response to the 2006 race riots in Kondopoga, a small city in the rural Karelia, north of St. Petersburg. Following explosive riots that left two dead and scores of immigrants terrified, President Putin made questionable remarks that seemed to have shifted the blame from the ethnic Russians who embarked on a terror spree that could easily have been called a pogrom. Shortly thereafter, in April 2007, Kondopoga was used as an excuse to ban non-Russian citizens from working in food markets, a blatant appeal to nationalist sentiment.

I think whats really changed in my mind, the most significant change of the past year and a half, is the way that the government is reacting to it. When Putin gave his speech after the Kondopoga riots, instead of just making it a very clear condemnation of what had happened, he used it as a way of pushing this law against foreign market traders and used the phrase the native peoples of the Russian Federation, said Butkevich.

In addition to the market laws, Butkevich points to a spate of recently dedicated public holidays with a distinctly nationalist bent, and what appears to have been a conscious decision on the part of the regime to hand them over to extremist groups.

On December 9, on the Day of the Heroes of Russia, far-right groups marched with impunity in Moscow, spouting violent rhetoric in full view of the police. Alexander Belov, leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), reportedly told a gathered crowd: What are you waiting for? Weapons to the people! Send the freaks to prison! It's time to talk about Russian nationalism. Russians need to stop smashing each other's faces in. They need to unite and go and smash someone else's faces! This was just weeks after Democratic opposition leader Garry Kasparov was arrested in Moscow during a march to the central election committee in Moscow.

They let these people just take the holidays over and they dont do anything about it, but they crack the heads of Kasparov and the gay rights advocates, said Butkevich. They show what they can do when somebody is not a desirable element rallying on the streets. They have no compunction about taking very tough measures against them.

Russia does have relatively stringent laws under which to prosecute hate crimes. Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code makes actions aimed at the incitement of national, racial, or religious enmity, punishable by huge fines and extensive jail terms. Still, the successful application of the statute has proven extremely difficult. Among the many impediments are poorly trained and often corrupt local police and lack of a strong political will to enforce the laws with regularity.

Experts admitted that there have been some bright spots in the last few years, chief among them an increased willingness to prosecute hate crimes under article 282 with its more vigorous penalties. In the past, and to a lesser degree today, many ethnically motivated crimes were swept under the rug and prosecuted as mere hooliganism.

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of arrests. Nowadays, I think its more likely than not that if somebody commits a hate crime, especially if it gets reported in the national media, that somebody will get arrested. And that was not true under Yeltsin, that was not true in the first years of the Putin administration, said Butkevich.

In addition, experts had a great deal of praise for Russian press coverage of hate crimes, repeatedly described as far superior to the coverage garnered in the West. Much of the data worked with by Sova and UCSJ is culled from reports in the Russian media.

The prevailing mood however, is one of gloom and frustration. Experts, disturbed not only by hate crimes but by what they describe as an increasingly hostile environment for NGOs, predict that the problem will get worse before it gets better.

I think overall the human rights situation is dire and it certainly complicates the efforts to fight hate crimes, said Legendre. In other countries where hate crimes are being tackled in a more thorough way, its a process that involved government officials, other public officials and civil society in a very strong way. The fact that civil society is really feeling the crunch in Russia, that NGOs are under pressure, that those who seek to raise these problems may face a backlash themselves, certainly doesnt help to keep this issue on the agenda.