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Analysis & Opinion
28.01.10 Catch Me If You Can
By Tom Balmforth

Racist and neo-Nazi attacks in Russia “clearly decreased” in 2009, but the scale of xenophobic violence remains “frightening,” according to a report released yesterday by Russia’s Sova Center. The hate crime monitor said the fall - unprecedented during Sova’s six years of monitoring - could be attributed to the disbanding of particularly violent ultranationalist groups by the police last year. But now extremist groups are beginning to target state institutions and personnel. Are Russia’s hard-line nationalists finally being sidelined, or are they merely changing their objectives?

The Sova Center’s report on racially motivated violence in Russia last year registered 71 murders (down from 109 in 2008), and 333 assaults resulting in injury (down from 486). The attacks still followed the usual template: they were mostly perpetrated by extreme right-wing nationalists, while Central Asian and Caucasian immigrants were the most frequently targeted. The Moscow District (city and region) was the most dangerous place for foreigners, with 38 murdered and 131 injured, followed by St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region, with 8 murders and 36 injured.

The report tallies with findings from other human rights monitors. Alexander Brod, the head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said his organization will soon release its 2009 summary report on xenophobia in Russia, and that it had observed a similar trend with “some falls in the number of murders and attacks compared with previous years.”

So why the improvement? Well, Russia’s Interior Ministry can take a rare pat on the back, as both Brod and the Sova Center’s report credited last year’s police crackdown on radical neo-Nazi groups in Russia, particularly in Moscow, for the decrease in racist violence. The prosecutor’s office too has recently opened up more criminal cases against far-right extremists, and courts have increasingly passed guilty verdicts, both of which have had a positive impact, according to Brod.

But there is still little room for optimism. Sudden spikes in racist violence remain possible in any region because not enough is done by the state to reverse xenophobic sentiment, which is continually building up, particularly amongst the younger generations, said Brod. “The state is not implementing measures to prevent young extremists, it does not enlighten its citizens, it has not attempted to fine-tune its migration policy, and it does not oppose the ideology of racism, xenophobia and neo-Nazism,” said Brod. These knock-on effects are then further aggravated by socio-economic factors such as poverty and unemployment.

That Russia registered fewer racial attacks in the middle of its worst economic crisis in over a decade is clearly encouraging. But high unemployment looks likely to continue for at least the near future, and Brod even said “I think it’s possible there will be a surge in racist attacks.”

The Levada Center, an independent pollster, published a survey in December which showed that an increasing number (35 percent last year) of Russians “responded negatively or very negatively” to immigrant workers even from Russia’s “near abroad.” In another survey Levada found that 54 percent of Russians support the slogan “Russia for the Russians.”

What’s more, Russia’s mainstream political parties actively manipulate this widespread nationalist sentiment to strengthen their support base, according to Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy head of the Sova Center who compiled the report. “Xenophobic propaganda continues to appear as an attribute of the electoral campaign between the majority of official parties (including United Russia [the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev and the largest faction in the Duma] and Just Russia),” she wrote.

Nonetheless, Kozhevnikova said 2009’s improved statistics reflected the state’s improved anti-xenophobia efforts. “In comparison with previous years, the government last year did more. But the problem is that the government is late in getting round to new challenges. It’s always slow to react – for a long time it didn’t react to racist violence and now, ten years after people in Russia started killing in the name of nationalism, it’s finally starting to catch these racists,” she said.

On January 19 anti-fascist demonstrators took to the streets to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the murders of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were gunned down in broad daylight in central Moscow. Although the march was prematurely brought to an end by a salvo of tear gas and a string of arrests, those commemorating can take consolation that the gunman, who had links to far-right groups, has been convicted.

But now that the police are finally catching up with murders by extremist groups, Kozhevnikova said, the groups are once again evolving. “Now racists have stopped killing so much, but now they are carrying out bombings, arson and other vandalism. The government is not ready for this – it is always lagging behind, and in this sense the situation is only going to get worse,” said Kozhevnikova. According to the Sova report, racially motivated vandalism grew unprecedentedly in 2009.

Perhaps the most striking finding in the report is that ultranationalist groups are “more willingly and actively moving toward anti-state terrorism,” and they are less likely to carry out random attacks on foreigners. Kozhevnikova said this was a natural reaction to the improved efforts of the state and that the far-right groups were now changing their objectives. “First of all, this is because the state has begun to position itself as the enemy of the extremist right.

Secondly, it’s just a normal, logical progression for such a movement. The reason they assaulted foreigners was that they hoped that they would leave. When nothing changed, they started killing, which also changed nothing. Now they are trying to create instability in the country to create a revolution so they themselves can throw out the foreigners,” she said.

Kozhevnikova said she was encouraged by the state’s increased response to xenophobia, but that it is too early to speculate whether more significant progress was in the offing. “The government has recently been a lot more active, and if this trend continues, the situation could well improve. Whether this will happen, though, it’s really difficult to say,” she said.
The source
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