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Analysis & Opinion
28.07.11 A Nationalist Epidemic
By Justin Lyle

The massacre that shook Norway last week raised some difficult questions about the extreme right in Europe and in Russia. Anders Behring Breivik’s slaughter of teenagers at a political summer camp near Oslo shocked the world, not only by the extraordinary scale and brutality of the act, but because it took place in the famously prosperous and calm country that hosts the Nobel Peace Prize. The massacre lent support to claims that ethno-nationalist extremism is an inevitable phenomenon of today’s multicultural wider Europe, an inescapable local-level “clash of civilizations.”

However, this convenient explanation hides the socio-economic causes of ultra-right activism and obscures the role that state policy plays in encouraging or alleviating ethnic tensions. With Russian ethno-nationalist extremism a prominent feature of the country’s social landscape, understanding the roots of the ultra-right phenomenon is crucial to curbing unrest.

Less than a fortnight before the Norway massacre, Russia had seen some 13 of its own ultra-rightist killers convicted in an unprecedented court case. On July 11, the Moscow Region Military Court sentenced five members of the neo-Nazi National-Socialist Organization (NSO) North to life imprisonment, and the remaining eight individuals tried received between ten and 23-year sentences. This tough verdict seems to mark a major change in the government’s attitude toward the ultra-right.

Between January 2008 and early 2009, the ultra-rightists attacked more than 50 people and murdered 27, mostly on the basis of their “non-Slavic appearance.” On January 1, 2008, Lev Molotkov, a 27-year-old computer programmer and leader of this northern division of the neo-Nazi group, declared a year of “white terror.” The participants in that terror campaign convicted this month included a 17-year-old schoolboy, a female student of the Moscow State University journalism faculty, and 11 men in their early and mid-20s.

The NSO North branch became semi-independent in autumn of 2007, when the umbrella organization NSO, founded by Dmitry Rumyantsev, a former assistant to a State Duma deputy in 2004, decided to divide into regional groupings. Members received training in the use of firearms, in hand-to-hand and knife combat and in terrorist techniques such as uprooting train tracks.

The neo-Nazis’ victims were mostly dark-skinned people from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, but the group also killed an anti-fascist activist and a “traitor” from within their own ranks – the latter was tortured on camera for several hours, to a sound track of music from Russian children’s films and the German group Rammstein.

Observers have criticized the limited scope and closed nature of the court proceedings, arguing that powerful figures in the background of nationalist extremism, not least among them the organization’s founder Rumyantsev, are not being sniffed out. The fact that the case was heard behind closed doors by a military court and without a jury raised suspicion. Critics have pointed to Rumyantsev’s political connections, arguing that he must have enjoyed the blessing of members of the political establishment. Certainly, he made a timely exit from the NSO, just a month before the neo-Nazi activists were arrested.

According to monitoring by the Moscow-based Sova Center on xenophobia, this spring has seen only one third of the number of racist attacks – down from 97 to 34 incidents – witnessed during the same period of 2010. St. Petersburg and the surrounding region saw more attacks (17 victims) than Moscow and the Moscow Region (11 victims) for the first time, and incidents were also registered in Vologda, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Saratov and Bashkiria. Central Asians and enemy youth activists bore the brunt of these assaults, and people from the North Caucasus were also attacked. Since the start of 2011, 64 people have suffered hate-crime, and 11 were killed – a significant year on year drop.

More moderate nationalist sentiment is widespread in Russia, and polls earlier this year suggested that 15 percent of the population thinks that the slogan “Russia for the Russians” should be brought into effect immediately, while 40 percent support it “within reasonable bounds.” Statements and willingness to vote or act are very different, however, and there is no evidence of widespread support for racist violence.

The annual Russian March on November 4, bringing together nationalists from various organizations, was unusually well attended last year. It was followed in December by rioting by 6,000 protesters on Manezh Square near the Kremlin. The December unrest followed close on the heels of the killing of Yegor Sviridov, a Russian football fan, allegedly by opposition fans from the Caucasus. The success of this event prompted a wave of optimism among right-wing extremist groups about their growing political prospects. But it also seemed to awaken the authorities to the potential threat posed by the far right.

Alexei Panin, the deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, argues that the ultra-right phenomenon is a typical element of today’s political landscape, irrespective of state policies. “Just look at the events in Germany, France or even Norway – any country with a mix of cultures has this problem. Theoretically, you could connect it with youth or migration policy, but in practice it’s not really connected. You could point to the lack of social mobility for young people in Russia, but countries that do have social mobility still face this problem.”

In contrast, Maksim Rokhminstrov, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the leading far-right mainstream political party, blames government policy for the violence of the extreme right. “The policy of Russia and other countries, including in the European Union, has been to buy off the national minorities in the state. By giving these people more social benefits than the national majorities in the countries, the government provokes distrust and inter-ethnic conflicts.” High state expenditure in Chechnya is a central topic of criticism for right-wing actors.

In a recent Levada Center report, sociologist Denis Volkov argued that the rise in nationalist activism reflects deep and growing frustration with the authorities. In his view this frustration centers on systemic corruption and the resulting lack of responsiveness on the part of the authorities to the concerns of the electorate. More specifically, the perceived failure of law enforcement bodies and judicial authorities to address crimes committed by people from the Caucasus and to protect the interests of ethnic Russians produce unrest. Participants of the protests reportedly also explained their activism as a response to the lack of opportunities for self-advancement and the dim prospects for an improvement of this situation.

The Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev administrations have been accused of encouraging nationalist ideas in order to secure political consolidation. The pro-government youth organization Nashi, set up under Putin, began to recruit nationalist skinheads to its ranks actively in 2005, in an effort to contain and redirect nationalist sentiment. These skinheads were reportedly used to break up opposition protests, including attacking activists campaigning against the construction of a new highway through the Khimki Forest north of Moscow in July of 2010. The authorities have also been linked to radical right-wing groups, such as Russian Image, which despite being banned managed to secure a prime location for a demonstration in November of 2009. At least one United Russia member of Parliament has admitted promoting youth education projects with the ultra-right group.


Government attitudes seem to be changing, however. In the wake of the Manezh Square unrest, 2,000 gang members were arrested. The government has also moved to ban ultra-right groups. The controversial 2008 law against extremism has been used to ban several right wing organizations, including the prominent Slavic Union, and most recently the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). Both organizations enjoy relatively large support and have been responsible for racist attacks.

An increase in convictions in prominent racist murder cases has also contributed to the drop in attacks. The most high-profile case was the sentencing of Yevgeny Tikhonov, a founding member of Russian Image, to life imprisonment for the January 2009 murders of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. In May members of ultra-right groups Lincoln 88 in St. Petersburg and the White Legion in Dzerzhinsk were convicted for killings.

According to Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center, the leadership is trying to contain nationalist activism, but has a difficult balancing act to perform. “The Russian demographic crisis means the country needs migrant labor, but this brings the risk of ethnic conflict,” she said. Government rejection of other forms of independent social activism is also part of the problem. “The government’s drive for control has entailed distrust of any independent source of authority, so it hasn’t supported societal organizations that could help to deal with this problem, which, after all, lies in the consciousness of society at large, and which cannot be resolved through formal politics alone.”

The leading ultra-right groups, such as DPNI, the Slavic Union and the Russian Social Movement (ROD), on the other hand, are trying to avoid total marginalization and to capitalize on the nationalist gains of last December’s unrest to win seats at this year’s parliamentary elections. The groups have looked to integrate into a new overarching united nationalist front. The Sova Center has reported that from February onward, three separate integration projects developed. The most significant of these was led by DPNI and the Slavic Union, and resulted in the formation in April of the new Ethnopolitical Association – Russians, whose membership was based mainly on the organizations that participated in the Russian March. In April, three minor far-right parties signed an agreement to form a coalition under the name “Our Motherland.”

The political impact of these projects will be limited, however. The fact that the major groups behind the Ethnopolitical Association – Russians are officially classed as extremist is a barrier to legitimacy. Also, while some leaders are totally unfamiliar to the public, others are (accurately) seen as neo-Nazis, and are thus not acceptable to the wider electorate. The absence of substantive policy programs among these groups, and their lack of access to influential media resources, such as television, will also limit their impact. There is a major gap between the older generation of the far right, which is interested in legal politics, and the younger generation which continues to reject systemic politics in favor of street war.

The failure of these groups – like that of their democratic opponents – either to find their own niche in the political system or to attract mainstream political party support will ensure that core conflicts of interest within the state are not resolved through politics. The irresponsible stance of the authorities toward nationalism in the context of high labor migration, coupled with the indifference of the government and systemic opposition to grass-roots social concerns (whatever their nature) will ensure that social frustrations continue to find their expression in popular unrest and in racial hatred.
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