Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 7

By Nabi Abdullaev

[The Kremlin’s efforts to battle ethnically motivated extremism will most likely prove futile, because Russian society, especially in its poorer layers, is plagued with genuine xenophobic sentiments. The mismatch in the traditional mentalities and ways of life of indigenous Russians and migrants from the southern outskirts of former Soviet Union is to blame for the local population’s growing discontent with the newcomers.]

Despite the recent Kremlin’s efforts to curb hate crime, racially motivated offences continue. Statistics indicate that racial discrimination finds wide public support among ordinary Russians. Experts say that the upsurge of xenophobia is provoked by the influx of migrants from the former Soviet Union’s southern outskirts, whose ways and outlook differ from those of indigenous Russians. In this sense, Russia is catching up with some Western European countries, where rightist politicians have successfully used nationalist and anti-immigrant slogans to play on the populist and xenophobic sentiments of the voters.

In a June press conference, President Vladimir Putin explained the situation in these countries by the fact that universal human values there predominate over the interests of indigenous population. “As for Russia,” he said, “I don’t see such a threat [of a political shift to the extreme right]. “Such danger develops or may develop when the leadership of this or that country pays no attention to the primary needs of its own population and neglects their problems.”

But recent unrest in the Moscow region’s town of Krasnoarmeisk, where citizens aggressively demanded the authorities to expel the Armenian migrants, and the wide popular support the Krasnodar regional authorities enjoy in implementing such a task, are vivid testimony that a political shift to the extreme right is already underway in Russian regions most heavily populated with immigrants, and that the rate of this drift is high.

Statistics shows that once much-vaunted cliche “the brotherhood of the Soviet peoples” today turned into a ghost from the past: 34 percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation in April considered the Russia’s being the multi-ethnic state to be harmful for the country. Forty-four percent would cheer the deportation of the representatives of some ethnic groups from their regions, and just 40 percent said they would disapprove the measure. Movies that encourage xenophobia–like “Brother”, “Brother-2” or “The War,” in which young Russian protagonists violently punish dark-skinned Caucasians–have been the greatest successes in the Russian film industry in recent years.

A significant part of the country’s intellectual elite has also chosen to take part in the xenophobic games. In June the National Bestseller award went to Gospodin Geksogen, a novel written by the editor of the Russian nationalist newspaper Zavtra Aleksander Prokhanov. The book denounced Jews and Caucasians as a main source of the sorrows that have plagued Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union.

Russian Nationalities Minister Vladimir Zorin has publicly admitted that excessive migration into Russia’s most prosperous central and southern regions is what injects xenophobic sentiments there. “These people [migrants] must be where it would be favorably for the state as a whole and for local authorities,” he told Interfax recently.

But state interests clash with simple human instincts. Moscow city and the Moscow region, with their more highly developed social and industrial infrastructure, remain one of the most attractive havens for immigrants. According to the Moscow city migration committee, some 82,000 migrant laborers were registered last year in Moscow–ten times more than in St. Petersburg–and there are about 1 million illegal immigrants in the city.

But in cosmopolitan Moscow ethnic hatred is not as likely to be displayed openly as it is in the smaller surrounding settlements like Krasnoarmeisk, which once had an almost homogenous Russian population, believes Vladimir Pribylovsky a nationalism expert of the Panorama think tank. “When newcomers appear locally in the town’s suburbs, the locals are naturally irritated,” he said. “When this irritation is added to social discontent and poverty, we have grounds for conflict.”

According to Pribylovsky, migrants are more active than their local counterparts, and it is not unusual for this activity to include criminal acts, enraging the indigenous population even more. Police statistics support this as a specific cause of ethnic hatred. Nikolai Vagin, police chief of the Vidnoye district adjacent to southern Moscow that particularly attracts natives of Central Asia, said in a recent interview that up to 90 percent of the crime in the district is committed by migrants and that the illegal drug trade is run almost entirely by them. Traditionally, migrants from the southern republics are retail traders and the local’s seeing money changing hands among them every day is another factor igniting ethnic hatred, believes Yuri Korgunyuk from the Indem think tank. “Most of the impoverished locals don’t see how hard traders work,” he said. “Instead, they feel deceived by the newcomers who take their bread away from them.”

A sentiment often expressed by Moscow authorities is that systematically toughening the rules for immigrants and demanding privileges for the indigenous population in the area of employment has nothing to do with the self-sustaining situation on the labor market, said Pribylovsky of Panorama. “Migrant laborers fill only those positions that locals don’t volunteer for,” he said. “In retail, for example, Russians in general are not good at it and in fact don’t like it.”

The roots of xenophobia go deeper than social relations and involve the biological instincts of human beings, Lidiya Matveyeva, a psychologist expert with Moscow State University believes. Immigrants coming to Russian cities with their own vision of the world cause natives to feel threatened. “Peoples are a biological species that fight, die out or survive,” she said. “”The Caucasians and Central Asian peoples have the mentality of nomads who feel at home in any place that provides better living for them. The Russians, who are traditionally a nation of farmers, are attached to their natural habitat, and see no alternative but to struggle against such an unendorsed expansion of nomads to save themselves from extinction.”

According to her, the racially motivated extremism is a measure of desperate self-defense of the native people deprived of the state protection of their interests.

The main difference between the rise of nationalism in some Western European countries and in Russia is that in the absence of a developed civil society in Russia, hate crimes become the only way to express popular protest, lamented Alexander Ivanov-Sukharevsky, the leader of the outspoken nationalist Russian People’s Party. “In Europe people go out and vote for nationalist parties,” he pointed out, “here they go out and smash Azeri kiosks.”

Russia has seen a wave of ethnically motivated attacks attributable for the most part to skinheads. In the vast majority of criminal cases that followed, however, prosecutors didn’t mention racial motives in the charges. Earlier in July, the Federation Council approved a law to combat ethnically motivated extremism, which is now awaiting presidential signature. Both political experts and liberal politicians criticized the law for duplicating the existing provisions of the Criminal Code and for giving the government more authority to disband public organizations. Little was said about what impact the law will have on the genuine nationalist sentiments of Russian people.

Ivanov-Sukharevsky, who said he fears his party would be banned under the law, believes that in the long term, the law will only serve to proliferate nationalism. “The Kremlin has pulled the plug on popular protests, threatening to bar political organizations like mine, and pushed nationalists, who were ready for dialog with the authorities, underground,” he said. “Deprived of this ‘safety valve,’ nationalist sentiments among common Russians will spontaneously grow faster. Sooner or later they will bring us to power.”

Nabi Abdullaev, a Dagestani journalist, is a staff writer with The Moscow Times.