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Analysis & Opinion
28.07.08 Inbreeding Colorblindness
By Sergei Balashov

Violent racism is no news for Russia, where attacks on foreign students, predominantly from African countries, were reported almost daily in the 1990s. These days, hate crimes are getting more and more brutal. “There is a sharp increase in lethal assaults among these attacks,” said executive director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights Natalya Rykova.

Last year, over 200 assaults were reported, leaving 50 people dead. This year, these numbers have already been far outmatched. In the first six months of 2008, 198 people were injured and 80 killed in 171 racially-motivated assaults. Over 100 people have been convicted of hate crimes.

“In the beginning of the 1990s the skinheads just tried to make everyone aware of their existence,” said member of Russia’s Public Chamber Alexander Brod. “Now they are armed and well structured.” It is estimated that these organizations have over 70 thousand members in Russia. “They operate in all big cities, and now they’re starting to take over district centers and small towns,” Brod added.

What appears to be even more troubling is the response that these crimes elicit in society, which seems to quietly approve of them, thus indirectly aiding the raging nationalists. According to Brod, only 16 percent of Russians believe that the so-called skinheads who are behind the majority of the crimes should be outlawed, while the remaining 84 percent either sit on the fence or believe that these movements should be legal. “These boys have a lot of fans in our society,” said Brod.

Socio-economic problems that escalate the tension in Russian society cannot solely be blamed for persisting racial intolerance in Russia, which not only serves as the root cause for hate crimes, but also leaves others indifferent toward these actions. According to the head of the commission for interethnic relations and freedom of conscience of the Public Chamber Nikolai Svanidze, the changing attitude of the state, which often includes nationalistic overtones in its rhetoric, should shoulder the blame for bolstering these trends.

“On the one hand, we can point out some positive trends, as we’re seeing some evidence that the state is well aware of what’s going on and is not happy with it,” said Svanidze. “We’re seeing an adequate reaction with those convicted of racial crimes getting harsher sentences. On the other hand, we’re seeing an ideology that can, to a certain extent, be categorized as imperialistic. We can see it in the mass media and in the speeches of high-ranking officials. Once this ideology spreads among people who don’t always have the education or the capability to understand correctly what they see and hear, it sparks up xenophobia in its fringe forms,” he added.

The existing media outlets do not seem enough to counter the strong campaigns launched by the extremists. “We can say that at this point, the state has lost the propaganda war to the nationalists,” said Rykova. “Not enough books promoting tolerance are published, while over 100 xenophobic newspapers exist in Russia.”

With its considerable influence, the government is looked to for help by those suffering in the endless racial conflicts, primarily the immigrants that are trying to establish themselves in the new country. They are often treated as unwelcomed guests; the sentiment toward them turns from scorn and disdain and then moves on to beatings and stabbings. “The hostile attitude toward the minorities hardly makes them any more tolerant,” said Rykova. The reaction is sometimes very similar to the cause. “We’re already seeing the Chinese teaming up in organized crime groups,” she said.

The state has been making efforts to ameliorate the situation. A federal program aimed at deterring extremism and promoting a tolerant attitude in society was launched in 2005 following its inception four years earlier. The results, however, show that the program did not nearly suffice to turn the corner. The solutions, experts argue, should be more complex, going beyond the means at the government’s disposal.

“We should look at Germany and the United States, look at how they fought this problem, learn from their experience,” said Brod. “In the United States, they realized how racism could be harmful to all people and different parts of society. They used the mass media, got the film industry involved, launched public discussions on this matter and began recovering from this disease.”

“Why don’t we follow someone’s example, if it’s a good one, where a country took less than half a century to solve this problem?” said Svanidze. “In the 1960s, they had whites-only benches in the United States, while now an African-American has a good chance of becoming president.”

“I cannot imagine myself becoming a deputy or maybe a rector of a university, even though I have been here for 20 years and I have a Russian passport,” said president of the Association of Foreign Students in Russia Daniel Kochofa, who is originally from Benin. “I think it’s impossible because of my skin color; this is a level I will probably never reach.” “This was a massive step and it was made primarily in collective psychology, it wouldn’t be possible without a decisive stance from the state,” added Svanidze.

Mass media can be instrumental in setting the collective conscience on the right course, and the government can make a statement by working actively in this field. “The majority of our mass media is either state owned or in some way affiliated with the state, so the government’s position has a direct influence on that of the mass media,” said Svanidze. “However, mass media outlets tend to follow the mood that predominates in society, and by doing this, they’re only making the situation worse. It’s a cycle that has to be broken.”

If this vicious cycle is not overcome, the consequences could be getting worse by the year. Officially, the number of foreign students in Russia is growing, and the share of those coming from former Soviet republics is increasing, almost equally matching the number of students from other countries. “Really, the number of foreign students studying in Russia is decreasing if you look at this ratio,” said Kochofa. “It’s unfortunate when someone comes here to live and study for five years desiring to get to know the country, its culture, make friends here, serve as a kind of an ambassador of Russia in his home country, and finds himself in this situation.” Kochofa said that students rarely go anywhere outside the campus and the university, and take a baggage of hard feelings home.

“There are a million specialists in foreign countries that have studied in Russia, which includes ten acting presidents, like that of Somali,” said Kochofa. “The question is what will they think of us?”
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