Elections and ethnic policy: xenophobes in the struggle for power


This week, Kommersant reported that in accordance with an order issued by President Putin, a new ethnic policy concept paper has been prepared by a special interdepartmental commission comprising representatives of the Regional Development Ministry, Culture Ministry, Education Ministry, Finance Ministry, Justice Ministry and Foreign Ministry, as well as the Federal Security Service and Security Council. The commission itself rates its work rather highly: one of the direct participants in the process told Kommersant that their proposed option sets out “the end of one stage of society’s development and the transition to the next.”

In the source’s opinion, the document entirely meets present-day realties. “The emphasis has been shifted from implementing agreements regarding the distribution of powers between Moscow and the regions, to the formation of institutions of civil society and cohesion of the Russian people as a united nation.”

Sounds impressive. Although – inconveniently as usual – some long-forgotten formulations spring to mind: “new historical community,” “the Soviet people”…

Meanwhile, it’s very serious: according to Kommersant sources, the Regional Development Ministry headed by Vladimir Yakovlev has already calculated that the corresponding federal target program “Ethnic Cultural Development of Regions” would cost the budget no less than 9.5 billion rubles. Vladimir Yakovlev’s department has also prepared a departmental program with a terrifying name “Federal Center of Innovative Ethnic Cultural Projects and Initiatives.” However, Kommersant specifies, in Russia there are already being realized at large several dozen federal targeted programs of ethnic and regional policy, all of them are rather generously funded. For example, the Southern Russia program costs 2.6 billion rubles, and programs of social and economic development of Chechnya, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan have been given 5.8 billion, 6.2 billion and 9.9 billion rubles respectively. Now, the cohesion of the united Russian people will require 10 billion more, since in its time the Soviet people failed to become united, in spite of all the efforts and spending.

Apparently, such a goal remains hard to achieve in the present, now that the level of xenophobia in Russian society has long since exceeded all imaginable limits.

After the murder of a student from Peru in Voronezh, the press published impressive statistics of assaults on foreigners in Russian cities. Not only Voronezh and St. Petersburg, Russia’s “xenophobia capitals,” appear on this list, but also Moscow, Krasnodar, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Perm – practically all of Russia’s largest cities.

Andrei Yurov, consultant to the Moscow Helsinki Group and expert with the Youth Sector of the Council of Europe, told Gazeta that he sees the cause of the incident in the authorities’ tolerant treatment of various nationalist organizations. “In the mid-1990s, the police even patrolled markets together with volunteer militia from the Russian National Unity Party (RNE),” notes Yurov. “One of the strongest RNE branches operated in Voronezh until recently.”

These days the RNE is banned, but its members, with their specific ideology, haven’t disappeared; they are still enjoying popularity and authority among young people. According to Yurov’s data, a great number of young people in the south of Russia sympathize with the skinheads to some extent.

“Research into this problem shows that Russia is gaining the lead in the number of extremist groups and people involved,” says Rossiiskaya Gazeta. “According to some data, they include up to 50,000 people. Who will stop them when they take up arms?”

Novaya Gazeta recalls that in March this year, on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Orel, about fifty RNE activists from Bryansk marched through the city wearing black camouflage and swastika arm-bands. “This happened earlier already,” says Novaya Gazeta, “if nationalists are put under pressure in one city, several hundred of their fellows from other cities come there and just walk along the streets.” Formally, it’s not a demonstration, and as such needs no permission from the authorities. However, it never fails: “As a rule, the RNE has no problems after such demonstrations.”

“There’s a temptation to attribute xenophobic attitudes among Voronezh youth to that region’s proximity to the North Caucasus – this factor shows all over the south of Russia,” notes Nezavisimaya Gazeta. However, that’s far from being the full truth.

So, why Voronezh? This question was put by Novaya Gazeta to a Voronezh industrialist, the director of a plant “under permanent crisis management.” The director explained: Voronezh is an industrial capital of Black Soil belt. In the past, young people always had an opportunity to learn marketable skills and then find jobs at one of large enterprises, with social guarantees. “In time, they earned more than engineers. They had a future.”

Now, half-dead plants, as the newspaper puts it, “regularly discard human ballast to survive.” And signs of “the good life” are everywhere, of which there was nothing before: “The Voronezh of today is a city of casinos, restaurants and entertainment centers, where one can go out and have a wonderful time.”

If one lacks money to lead this way of life, it’s clear that someone definite has to be blamed. “Teenagers won’t go to rallies like old people, they find culprits themselves.”

As the newspaper was said by one of teachers of Voronezh vocational school, “Do they believe they would sit still in their villas, surrounded by crowds of bloody-minded, poor and degraded youth? Don’t you understand what Russia is going to face?”

Indeed, social inequality is poisoning the atmosphere. “The gap between the rich and the poor goes on growing, despite the favorable external market environment,” as Levada Center pollsters told Vedomosti. According to Rosstat, in 2004 the incomes of the richest 10% were 15 times greater than the incomes of the poorest 10%.

In the streets of Voronezh, Novaya Gazeta reports, only foreigners of non-Slavic appearance are attacked. The chairman of a local committee of education and culture was beaten and robbed recently. Later, the chairman of the Duma property committee (who is also an owner of a food wholesale firm) was hospitalized. A week later there was an attack on a villa owned by the deputy speaker of the local parliament, a well-known manager of the largest oil and gas enterprise of the region.

Meanwhile, in the Duma, “pseudo-oppositional pseudo-factions” (a definition from Novaya Gazeta) expressed their perplexity about the fact that in the region, headed by the FSB “native” Governor General Kulakov, they are completely helpless before rising neo-fascism. Most emotional was Motherland leader Dmitri Rogozin, “I blame the Voronezh authorities, which are stuck in corruption and have entirely neglected affairs in their native city, surrendering it to the hands of street gangs” (quoted from Nezavisimaya Gazeta). In Rogozin’s opinion, “the death of the Peruvian student is just one of consequences of the mess in Voronezh region,” where “Governor Kulakov has completely lost control.”

However, Novaya Gazeta mentions that Rogozin and Kulakov fell out with each other at the last parliamentary elections already, though before “they were thick, and Kulakov helped Rogozin as far as he could, and even voted for Motherland himself.” But then Kulakov was made number one in the regional election list of the United Russia, the governor “personally led the power party to struggle against Motherland, and their friendship was over.” It’s clear that Rogozin couldn’t have failed to profit from the situation to demand for change of leadership in his “political motherland,” as Novaya Gazeta calls the Voronezh region. But this is one side of the story. On the other side there’s the tragedy in Voronezh, an actual pretext for public rebuttal of accusations of xenophobia and racism which are often brought against Motherland party and its leader.

It was only a week ago that Dmitri Rogozin had to give explanations about a bill introduced by Motherland faction to the Duma, which proposed a ban on foreigners’ entrepreneurial business in the sphere of retail trade in food and clothing markets. In the explanatory note to this document, as Vedomosti says, Motherland members declared that “foreign citizens, forming ethnic diasporas, are driving out of the market the less-organized” Russian businessmen. What’s more, the foreigners are reluctant tax-payers and prefer foreign-made products, “not only more expensive, but also unsafe for the consumer.” And Motherland members also fear that “the situation may be used for deliberate sabotage against the Russian Federation and its people through deliberately selling dangerous goods.”

Sergey Popov, a member of the Duma’s constitutional law committee, explained to Gazeta that “at first sight, there’s nothing unconstitutional in the Motherland initiative.” Since in accord with the Constitution “rights and freedoms of an individual and a citizen can be limited by law” – of course, only to the extent necessary “for defending the foundations of the constitutional order, morality, health, rights and legal interests of others, and defense of the country and security of the State.”

However, sources from United Russia’s staff have already promised Gazeta that this bill will be voted down, like all bills introduced by Motherland.

Nevertheless, the constitutional law committed considers it necessary to note that the ban is supposed to be expended to all the foreigners without exception, that’s why there’s no reason to speak about inciting ethnic hatred.”

“God forbid! We are against fascism!” a co-author of the bill, Motherland member Alexander Babakov, told Vedomosti. “But there should be legislative measures to defend the Russian manufacturer!”

Dmitri Rogozin himself said in the interview with the newspaper that no fewer than 2,000 ethnic crime groups are active in Russia today. Still, the sphere of trade has a strict specialization, “Since the early 1990s, the Azerbaijani group has controlled fruit and vegetable distribution, and since July 2005 all the Moscow warehouses have been headed by native Azerbaijanis. Can one imagine Poles trading in a flea market in France?” indignantly asks Rogozin.

“Unfortunately, in our country a fascist is defined as anyone who puts on a brown shirt and shouts Heil, while calls for expelling foreigners are regarded calmly,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, to Vedomosti. “A large part of the real opposition to the authorities is made up of genuine xenophobes, who would not be offered a decent hand to shake in Western Europe.”

Nevertheless, experts consulted by the newspaper admit that in the lead-up to the Moscow City Duma elections, Motherland has made a practically failsafe move.

As Deputy Director of Levada Center Alexei Grazhdankin told Vedomosti, dislike for people from the Caucasus is growing in Russia’s cities, and the greatest fault attributed to them is “taking over the outdoor produce markets.” According to the latest data from the VTsIOM polling agency, 23% of respondents say they dislike people from the Caucasus in general, while only 8% say they dislike Chechens in particular, despite daily “battle reports” from Chechnya. And if Rogozin’s people manage to properly promote their initiative, they’ll have a real chance to get additional votes at the Moscow elections, says Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center.

They’ll have to do a lot of PR, since xenophobic campaign rhetoric has been traditionally considered to be the property of another Russian party – the LDPR. Rogozin will have to position himself as sharply as possible to outmatch Vladimir Zhirinovsky. “Rogozin shows to the Moscow residents – we are working in contrast to LDPR, who don’t but acts out xenophobic attitudes in words,” highlights Andrei Ryabov. So, Zhirinovsky with his wild escapades is no longer sufficiently radical for the present-day voter.

Still, the matter is by no means reduced to markets.

Another Levada Center analyst, head of the socio-cultural research department Alexei Levinson, told Novaya Gazeta that “even the younger age groups are feeling the phantom pains of Russia’s lost status” as a superpower.

The people expect the authorities to “ensure that Russia makes a comeback in historical terms.” Levinson says: “All layers of society are now concerned about the problem of restoring Russia’s greatness.” In his opinion, that is one of the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s popularity.

Judging from the results of polls, citizens interpret the Year 2008 Problem in their own way: “There are high expectations that if Putin had a third term, he would manage to make Russia more authoritative internationally: 60% of respondents believe this.”

It shouldn’t be assumed that only the older generation feels nostalgic for superpower status. The habitual political apathy and formlessness of the “Pepsi generation” are gradually fading.

In the Novaya Gazeta interview, Levinson says: “Young people who take no interest in politics don’t feel any nostalgia for Russia’s former greatness. But as soon as they become aware of themselves as citizens, they start thinking: Our country is in bad shape. Its international standing needs to be raised.” Then they follow the path they understand best: “aggression towards categories of people who are perceived as representing Russia’s loss of status. Migrants, for example.”

Young people who are relatively ignorant of politics and other matters direct their aggression “against their enemies, believing they are doing their part to restore Russia’s status.”

The Levada Center considers that in Russia today “the positive world-view phase may be drawing to a close.” Russian society, “having responded dramatically to the transformations of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras and survived them with difficulty, is now digesting the reforms.” And today’s stagnation, as Levinson tells Novaya Gazeta, means only that “we are at the stage of adapting to innovations.” This stage will be over soon – and then “the authorities will have to live up to the people’s new quality.”

What kind of government will we have then? Disputes about that are becoming more and more aggressive. And not only Chief Editor of Zavtra Alexander Prokhanov is saying that Dmitri Rogozin will become president “sooner or later.” Recently, Marat Gelman, one of Russia’s most prominent political consultants – a close friend of the deputy head of the presidential administration, and said to be among those who founded both United Russia and Motherland – declared in an interview with Versia, “At present, there are no realistic presidential candidates other than Kasyanov and Rogozin.” What’s more, Gelman himself admits that Kasyanov’s chances of victory in 2008 are very dubious.

Still, no one dares to seriously discuss Rogozin and his chances. Why hurry? The first hurdle in the impending presidential race will be the Moscow city election.