Russians seek scapegoats in hard times

Anti-Semitism and ethnic harassment are expected to rise as elections near.

A bomb is discovered at a Moscow synagogue where 200 people had gathered for a religious ceremony, in one of more than half a dozen arson or bomb incidents in recent months.

Six graves in the Jewish cemetery in Tomsk, Siberia, were defiled earlier this month. In July, a Russian Jewish leader was stabbed inside a Moscow synagogue by a man with a swastika tatoo. Among many Communist politicians, a pejorative term for "Jew" is back in fashion, as is blaming Jews for the country's economic woes.

Meanwhile, unrest in Dagestan on top of years of strife in Chechnya have given Russian militias an excuse to harass, beat, or detain anyone whose darker skin might indicate a Caucasus origin.

Welcome to Russia at the end of the millenium - a place that is striving to be a civil society but remains marked by hints of historic pogroms.

"Nationalist extremism is increasing in our country," said Vladimir Kartashkin, chairman of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights, at a June 16 conference on the topic in Moscow. "We should nip this danger in the bud."

Old ethnic hatreds have reemerged and new ones have appeared as frustrations over the collapse of the Soviet Union eight years ago and the disintegration of the economy have found a focus: ethnic minorities.

Communist and ultranationalist politicians are stirring up this nasty brew ahead of December's parliamentary elections and the presidential poll due six months later.

Prejudice is particularly severe in Krasnodar, a stridently Communist region 500 miles south of Moscow. For centuries this was the stronghold of Cossack horsemen who defended the czar and carried out pogroms. Today, Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko fuels anti-Semitism with harsh rhetoric and by permitting Cossack paramilitary organizations to intimidate minorities.

"They circle us on the streets and shout insults and demand money. No one helps us," says an Armenian woman who asked to be identified only as Irina.

THE region's tiny Jewish community of 3,000 worships discreetly in a scientists' club rather than in a synagogue, which members worry would attract too much attention. Elders lock the 200-year-old Torah, their scripture, in a safe at night to guard against theft or desecration.

Russia's nationalists see themselves as defenders of a Slav majority under assault. Among them is Vyacheslav Ilunchev, who heads a security company and a Cossack social group here in Krasnodar. Mr. Ilunchev complains that many good jobs are held by Jews. He says Chechens fleeing the violence since a 1994-96 independence bid in their nearby republic are murderers and thieves.

"Slavs don't have money, but refugees and other people have it," he says.

Krasnodar does not have a monopoly on intimidating minorities. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov robustly condemns anti-Semitism and has banned demonstrations by neofascists. But his city government has implemented a Soviet-style registration program aimed at cracking down on migrants from the Caucasus.

President Boris Yeltsin also regularly denounces anti-Semitism. But human rights advocates say ethnic hatred is too deeply rooted to be eradicated by declarations.

"The basic problem is the economic situation," says Adolf Shayevich, Russia's chief rabbi. "People have no work and no prospects. Historically, that's when Russians look for scapegoats."

In the past, these scapegoats often have been Jews. Pogroms during czarist times sent thousands fleeing to America. Later, the Soviets internally deported entire communities of other ethnic minorities.

Today, popular anger at the growing polarity between the ultrarich and abject poor often finds easy targets in prominent bankers or politicians perceived as Jewish. The most notable person to be labeled a "bad Jew" is the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, an adviser to the Yeltsin clan.

At the international conference on extremism in June, participants concluded that authorities took too little action to crack down on ethnic discrimination. Name-calling and harassment were only expected to increase as campaigning politicians exploit the nationalist tide.

"The major part of the population believes they have been impoverished at the expense of rich Jews," says Sergei Grigoriants, chairman of the Glasnost Public Foundation in Moscow. "I fear that before and after the elections intolerance will increase."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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