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Racist Violence on the Rise

Andrei Nesterov, Moscow, Russia, June 8, 2006

A demonstrator salutes during a march called by several ultra-nationalist organizations marking the New People's Unity Day holiday in central Moscow. The organizations are calling for an end to the 'occupation' of Russia by illegal migrants. (Photo: Mladen Antonov / AFP-Getty Images)

Newcomers to Russia, especially those who are not white, should beware of young, aggressive radical nationalists. Attacks against people of other nationalities, on the streets and in the Metro, have been rising. Some of the victims have died as a result of being assaulted. Targets include not only people of color, but also human rights activists and members of anti-fascist youth organizations.

For weeks, the Russian mass media has reported on the outbursts of racially motivated violence, but the attacks still continue.

Here are some recent examples:

St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Voronezh are known to be the most hostile cities for immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia. St. Petersburg is especially notorious in this regard, where nationalists kill even children. In 2004, a 9-year old Tajik girl named Khursheda Sultonova died after being stabbed there. This March, Lilian Sissoko, a 9-year old girl of Russian and African parentage, was attacked by two men near the door to her apartment and stabbed in the neck. Fortunately, she survived.

Although the number of racially motivated crimes committed by radical nationalists is relatively low in comparison to the overall number of crimes in the country (0.4 percent for 2003, according to the Interior Ministry), the number of such felonies continues to grow. In 2004, 254 attacks involving racial bias were registered. In 2005, the number had grown to 394, as reported by the Moscow-based Sova Center. According to the Center's statistics, since the beginning of 2006 more than 100 people have allegedly been attacked by radical nationalists, with 14 of the victims dying as a result.

Radical nationalists were especially influential from the mid-90s to 2000, when their organizations were officially registered and they operated legally all over the country. Eventually, the more notorious of these groups were banned by the State, but experts are concerned that hatred against certain foreigners is still too widespread in Russian society.

The aforementioned pertains not only to skinheads (of which there are an estimated 50,000 in Russia, according to the director of the Moscow bureau for human rights, Alexander Brod), but also many ordinary Russians frequently evince dislike for people of other nationalities. Public opinion polls show that more than half of the populace support the slogan, 'Russia — for ethnic Russians,' and half express negative attitudes towards peoples from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other regions. The poll was conducted by the Levada Center from 2005 through 2006.

Such xenophobic feelings run deep because Russian society exhibits many characteristics of a traditional rural society, which has always been suspicious of 'strangers,' said Vladimir Mukomel of the bureau for human rights. He stressed that the need is urgent in Russia to reverse the official policy towards people of other nationalities. Russia's population is declining by an estimated 700,000 people a year, and birth rates have been very low for the last 15 years. The country needs immigrants, otherwise it will soon experience a severe shortage in the workforce, according to Mukomel.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities seem to be indifferent to the efforts at outreach by radical nationalism. For instance, there are many Russian-language nationalist Web sites; about 150, according to the deputy director of Sova Center, Galina Kozhevnikova. Many of these sites post extremely provocative slogans and articles such as the 'Manual on Street Terror,' where advice is provided on how to "patrol" the streets "in search of an appropriate subject to attack."

The number of people who have been arrested and charged with racially motivated crimes is roughly 10 times less than the actual number of nationalism-related transgressions, said the director of Sova Center, Alexander Verkhovsky.

He noted, however, that the authorities have started to take the problem more seriously, realizing that racially motivated violence undermines societal stability.

Towards the end of 2005, Russian president Vladimir Putin released a statement pertaining to the skinhead problem, stating that his government was going to "strengthen the activities of the law-enforcement authorities, and do everything possible to wipe skinheads off of the political map of our country." Putin also demanded that the Russian special services police force fight against nationalism and xenophobia more actively.

However, punitive measures alone are unlikely to solve the problem. To make a difference, Russian authorities must actively promote racial tolerance in the media, said Gasan Mirzoev, a lawyer and member of the Public Chamber (the State consultative body). According to Mirzoev, the Russian public should be consistently presented with positive images of immigrants and persons of other nationalities, to help rid the country of the shameful traditions of the past.

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