In search of ruly effective measures against xenophobia and hate crimes

Xenophobia in Russia is a social and moral problem, not a political problem. We shouldn’t talk of 2008; instead, we should be saying that Russia will cease to be itself if it fails to overcome xenophobia.

Zaur Tutov, Kabardino-Balkarian minister for culture, was beaten up in Moscow in early April. Witnesses say that the youths who attacked him shouted: “Russia for Russians! Moscow for Muscovites!” The Moscow Prosecutor’s Office opened a case on charges of causing intentional bodily harm. After the Prosecutor General’s Office intervened, this was changed to a more serious charge: causing intentional bodily harm on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred. A day later, NTV network producer Elkhan Murzoyev was beaten up in a Moscow subway station – another ethnic hate crime.

The national television networks started discussing the topic of xenophobia and nationalism in Russia. This campaign turned out to be somewhat ambiguous, since supporters of nationalist ideology were also allowed to express their views. Meanwhile, Russia saw several more assaults and murders with clear indications of neo-Nazi influence.

The problem is that the media’s tsunamis concerning this issue sometimes resemble a game that’s advantageous for all participants. In effect, the nationalists get access to television airtime – if not directly, then via detailed coverage of their activities. The authorities demonstrate that they’re concerned about the problem. The opposition gets another opportunity to criticize the authorities.

This issue must be discussed, since a solution is inconceivable without public discussion. Firstly, however, the current conditions – when Vladimir Zhirinovsky is seen on television talking about xenophobia – carry the risk of losing the problem in the discussion. Secondly, the sources of nationalism can’t possibly be reduced to the depredations of some group of “bad guys.” One way or another, our whole society creates this problem. Thirdly, it’s foolish and dangerous to turn the xenophobia threat into just another issue that’s used as a tool for political purposes – as part of the political class is inclined to do.

The impression is that some distinctions need to be drawn in this discussion. “In speaking of rising xenophobia, we need to distinguish between three aspects of this problem: ethnically-motivated violence, nationalist propaganda, and xenophobic social attitudes,” says analyst Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. These aspects are inter-related, but they still need to be discussed separately.

Ethnic hate crimes are the most noticeable and most-discussed aspect of xenophobia. Incidents in which people from the Caucasus or Central Asia have been assaulted or murdered in Russian cities have triggered the latest discussion of nationalism. Acute as the street violence problem may be, however, we need to realize that it’s only the most visible and shocking aspect of the overall problem – and it’s an aspect that can be handled relatively quickly.

It’s worth noting that when we approached representatives of ethnic diasporas in Russia – Azeri, Korean, and some others – they spoke of ethnically-motivated street crimes with outrage, but not fear. Rather than speaking of physical threats to members of their diasporas, they were more inclined to say that such crimes threaten inter-ethnic harmony in Russia, and that ethnic Russians don’t feel safe from violence in the streets either. The Azeris seem to have more problems with police harassment than neo-Nazi attacks.

But the level of violence based on xenophobia has been growing of late. According to the Sova Center, 254 attacks were recorded in 2004 and 394 in 2005. The All-Russian Azeri Congress has counted over 40 ethnically-motivated attacks on Azeris since the start of 2006.

As a positive point, it should be noted that the number of ethnically-motivated murders has dropped over the past two years: the Sova Center reports 46 such murders in 2004 and 28 in 2005. “This drop is associated with intensified law enforcement measures in comparison with 2004,” says Alexander Verkhovsky. “Several widely-reported and successful trials of individuals charged with ethnic hate crimes have played a role here.” In St. Petersburg, on the other hand, neo-Nazis have stepped up their activities drastically against a backdrop of remarkably lenient sentences (such as the sentence in the Khursheda Sultonova murder trial) that give criminals a sense of impunity. What’s more, says Verkhovsky, the problem doesn’t involve xenophobic attitudes among police or jurors, as much as the prosecution’s inability to support such charges in court.

The problem of xenophobic attitudes among police and prosecutors does exist, but it doesn’t play a decisive role. Alexander Verkhovsky says: “For example, if a police officer sees a group of skinheads beating up an Azeri on a train, but doesn’t intervene, what is the problem: is he xenophobic, or just reluctant to get involved in a fight?” Most likely, the problem isn’t about the prejudices of individual police officers or prosecutors, but the general problem of ineffective law enforcement and the somewhat peculiar methods used by law enforcement agencies. As an example, here’s a case that sounds almost like a joke. In the Stavropol territory in 2002, ethnologist Viktor Avskentiev was prosecuted for inciting ethnic hatred. As evidence, the Stavropol Prosecutor’s Office pointed to Avskentiev’s book: “Stavropol: an ethnic conflict portrait.” The book cited opinion poll data showing that some Stavropol territory residents dislike Armenians. The court acquitted Avskentiev, of course, due to lack of evidence. Many observers attributed the prosecution as such to the fact that the Stavropol Prosecutor’s Office was then headed by Robert Adelkhanian, subsequently appointed as head of the international law directorate at the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Consequently, our natural and justifiable outrage over incidents in which the police or prosecutors fail to take action against ethnically- or racially-motivated crimes cannot be allowed to displace something else: continual efforts to improve law enforcement and restore order in the activities of law enforcement agencies. On their own, accusations against the police won’t be effective.

The “anti-fascism month” organized by the national television networks in April seems all the more ambivalent, given that television broadcasting as such and Russia’s political class have shown increasing tolerance for xenophobic propaganda of late.

“Just a few years ago, there was a divide between the political mainstream and the fringe elements,” says Alexander Verkhovsky, “but now these boundaries are breaking down.” In Verkhovsky’s opinion, this is largely due to the activities of the Motherland (Rodina) party and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which have adopted socially-acceptable political language for xenophobic propaganda. The audience knows perfectly well what the DPNI means when it talks of the threat of illegal immigration – but the DPNI’s public statements don’t contain anything unlawful. So Russian nationalists have mastered the political techniques used by extreme right-wing groups in Europe, known for their ability to use propaganda that skirts the boundaries of what is legally permissible.

From there, everything follows the ususal reasoning used in television broadcasting: news programs need at least a dash of intrigue or suspense, but the political mainstream isn’t very lively. This problem is solved by giving airtime to nationalists – since many of them refrain from saying anything too appalling, and they don’t mention the issues that the Kremlin really dislikes: freedom of speech, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and so on (from this standpoint, the television networks prefer Alexander Prokhanov to Boris Nemtsov, for example).

Besides, both the authorities and the opposition are guilty of being insufficiently discriminating in their choice of allies. The Kremlin used to favor the Motherland party, turning a blind eye to the presence in its ranks of some odious politicians who signed the notorious anti-Semitic appeal to the Prosecutor General’s Office. And when Motherland was disqualified from the Moscow city legislature election and denied registration for several other regional elections, the liberal opposition’s discussion of this focused on “the Kremlin oppressing an opposition party” rather than Motherland’s xenophobic campaign ad. Similarly, some liberals have shown a liking for the National Bolshevik Party.

In addition to Russian nationalism and “Russian” xenophobia, Russia also has “minority nationalism.” The latter is usually more acceptable for public opinion. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov, prime minister of Chechnya, said in an interview with a popular newspaper that he doesn’t approve of Chechen women marrying Russian men; nobody took legal action against Kadyrov for that statement, or even recalled which ideological tradition tends to condemn mixed marriages. The surge in “Russian” xenopobic propaganda elicits a response in the form of slogans like “Muslims (or Tatars, or people from the Caucasus) are being oppressed” – and a chain reaction begins. As a result, the public politics agenda essentially becomes ethnic-nationalist: divided into Russians and non-Russians. The dominance of the ethnic-nationalist agenda is guaranteed to frustrate any attempts to increase tolerance. (That can only be done by getting people to break their habit of thinking in ethnic generalizations, such as “all Tajiks are drug-dealers” or “all Chechens are proud.”) What’s more, an agenda of this kind creates hot-house conditions for neo-Nazi groups to flourish.

We might talk of television broadcasting and responsibility here, but there’s also another side to the problem. There wouldn’t be so much demand for the “nationalist issue” if public politics wasn’t so sterile. When television broadcasts fail to mention many truly important issues, what we inevitably see are “phantom issues” such as those raised by the DPNI, while the quality of debates deteriorates sharply.

Opinion polls indicating attitudes to various ethnic groups (according to Alexander Verkhovsky, these polls accurately reflect the level of xenophobia) show that over 50% of respondents support the “Russia for Russians” slogan to some degree. Over half of respondents dislike Chechens and Gypsies; these figures reach 60-70% among respondents under 25. The percentages are rising, slowly but surely.

An ethnologist from Dagestan, now living in Moscow, told us that soon after he moved to Moscow, he was woken up one night by a knock on his door. It turned out that his neighbors had called the police: they were alarmed by the fact that a non-Slavic person had moved into their apartment building. The ethnologist had to show his passport, with proof that he had a Moscow residency permit.

This incident shows that xenophobia in Russia is based on widespread fear. Despite several years of stabilization and economic growth, Russia citizens are still scared and depressed, and therefore aggressive. Problems with the treatment of outsiders are only one manifestation of such feelings.

Where does this come from, given the current economic growth in Russia? We’ll venture to suggest a theory. For almost two years (this trend was highlighted after the Beslan school hostage siege) the Russian elite has been seeking an enemy, or endlessly discussing the threat of Russia’s disintegration, for which there are no objective grounds translated both by “statehood supporters” and “liberals.”

There are only a few real neo-Nazis in Russia now. Only about 3,000 people participated in the Right March last November. The main threat is created not as much by the neo-Nazi groups as by the xenophobic feelings that are in the air. Many ethnically- or racially-motivated crimes are committed not by skinheads, but by ordinary drunk teenagers who act not because of their beliefs but under the influence of irrational aggression towards “aliens.” When irrational aggression is a factor, it is more appropriate to talk not of a political problem, but a social and moral problem. The ability to understand and accept the other is a key element of Russian culture, without which our country would cease to be itself. This is much more important than the presidential election of 2008.