A recent wave of apparently racist attacks, including the murders of an Uzbek migrant worker in Moscow and a Vietnamese student in St. Petersburg (see EDM, October 15 and 18), has sparked discussion in the media and among politicians about rising ethnic tensions in Russia.
Indeed, the Russian head of state himself may have been referring to these latest attacks during his official visit to Azerbaijan last week. President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of the All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress, which represents Azeris living in Russia, that the state and society “must immediately react to any manifestations of xenophobia and religious intolerance and fight relentlessly against instances of contagious, everyday nationalism that are still encountered” (Russian agencies, October 19).
Following Putin’s statement, Nezavisimaya gazeta asked several experts and politicians to comment on the apparent gap between the “rhetoric” of government officials, including the president, and “the real mood of a certain part of society.”
Emil Pain, the Yeltsin-era Kremlin adviser who now heads the Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Studies, answered: “I cannot be sure that the president is truly coming out against extremism and xenophobia. Today the authorities limit themselves to declarations. . . . There are a huge number of obstacles to applying the laws for counteracting extremism. It is not to the advantage of a regional prosecutor’s office to classify this or that incident as extremist, because it will then have to argue the case in higher courts, which means it will have piles of additional responsibilities laid on it.”
Valery Tishkov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, said it is not true that it is only pockets of individuals within society who are manifesting xenophobia and intolerance. “According to my data, 200-300 coffins resulting from violent actions are sent from Russia to Tajikistan alone per year,” he said. “If more consistent action is not taken, and not one or two applications of the Criminal Code and the statute on [inciting] religious discord simply for show, the situation in Russia will only get worse.” According to Tishkov, one reason extremism is growing is that some Russians are unable to compete economically with ethnic migrants and thus “use nationalist rhetoric” as a pretext for “smashing up their [market] stalls or more serious businesses.”
Presidential Human Rights Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova said that “tolerance” among the federal authorities had never been better, but that the situation with “everyday xenophobia” is “very bad.” “It is a problem of an irresponsible society, in which there is not an aversion to such occurrences,” she said. “Everyday extremism is widespread, particularly on the level of minor state officials.” Pamfilova called on law-enforcement officials — and, above all, prosecutors — to take a tougher and more “fundamental” approach the issue of extremism.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, put forward the opposite view: extremism, she said, is on the rise not because of “some sort of terrible xenophobia” among ordinary Russians, but because it is “encouraged and reinforced from the top, if not from the direction of the president, then as a result of irresponsible statements by many officials on the nationality issue.” Alexeyeva cited as an example Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev, who earlier this year promised to drive “the aliens and dissenters” out of his region (New Times, September 2004).
Alexei Mitrofanov, a State Duma deputy and member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), insisted there is “enormous” ethnic tolerance within Russia, adding that while there are instances of racially-motivated murders, Russians are killed “all around Russia” but “for some reason that’s not viewed as a political crime.” He also questioned whether the murder of a nine-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg earlier this year or the murder of the Vietnamese student were “political,” suggesting that the latter may have been drunk or gotten into a fight over a girl. “If it’s a foreigner, then it’s [a crime] on the basis of nationality; if a Russian professor in Petersburg is hit in the head, it is ordinary hooliganism,” Mitrofanov said. “That’s wrong. We have super-tolerance, and unfortunately, Putin is ready to fight southern [i.e., Caucasians and Central Asians–EDM] criminality with slogans but is not really doing anything. The southerners’ economic positions are very strong; they’ve seized all the positions. . . . Russians don’t understand where this is leading. They will be slaves in their own country.”
On September 21, a group of human rights activists held a seminar in Moscow on the issue of xenophobia. Alla Gerber, president of the Holocaust Foundation, estimated that there are 5,000-6,000 skinheads in Moscow and 50,000-60,000 throughout the country. Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said polling data indicate that 60% of Russia’s adult population adheres to an ideology that is best characterized as, “Russia for Russians and all misfortune is from non-Russians.” Of 70 criminal cases brought for inciting national or religious hatred, only ten have made it to court and only two people have been found guilty, Brod said (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 25). The Muslim Islam.ru website recently reported that the number of racially-motivated attacks in Russia has doubled since last month’s Beslan school tragedy, after rising some 400% over the previous four years (United Press International, October 21).