In Russia, concern over hate crimes grows

Recent racially motivated attacks are triggering debate over how to deal with rising xenophobia.

A recent attack by a knife-wielding attacker shouting, "I will kill Jews," is prompting an anxious debate over the rising tide of xenophobic violence in Russia and what to do about it.

The assault in Moscow's downtown Chabad Synagogue, which wounded eight people, was carried out by an alienated young loner, Alexander Koptsev, who police said was heavily under the influence of neo-Nazi books and Internet sites. Russian press reports suggest he had recently played a violent computer game in which a postman goes berserk and attacks everyone in sight. Mr. Koptsev has been charged with attempted murder aimed at "humiliating national or religious groups," a serious crime under Russian law.

It was one of a string of racially motivated attacks that human rights groups say have killed more than 40 people in the past year alone.

Spokespeople for minority groups complain that Russian police often seem reluctant to prosecute probable racist crimes, such as a street assault on two Moscow rabbis earlier this month, and instead classify them as "hooliganism," a term for general disorderliness.

"All too often, crimes of hate get dismissed as hooliganism," says Sol Butingolts, vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress. "People must recognize that incidents like [the synagogue attack] threaten to undermine the basis of Russia as a multiethnic state."

Some experts see Russia's emerging ultra-nationalist fringe, which includes an estimated 50,000 violence-prone skinheads and several neo-Nazi groups, as a predictable - if nasty - growing pain for a society that has been wrenched from its communist-era cocoon and hurled into the conflicting currents of global culture in the past decade and a half. They suggest the solutions lie in better education as well as tougher legislative curbs on fascist literature, Internet hatemongering, and violent computer games.

"In western Europe they brought in [anti-hate] laws after World War II, but we thought our victory over Naziism immunized us from that threat," says Pavel Krasheninnikov, a parliamentary deputy of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. "We need to work out better laws."

But others speak darkly of "Weimar Russia" and warn that, while skinhead violence grabs headlines, the real danger is a new tone of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia creeping into the mainstream media and official discourse.

"Any authoritarian regime, having suppressed normal political conditions, will find itself in need of internal and external enemies, someone to blame for peoples' misfortunes," says Yevgenia Albats, a political scientist at the state-run Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "This is exactly the position Vladimir Putin is in, having straitjacketed the media, marginalized the opposition, and eliminated elections for regional governors. The search for enemies is on."

Public intolerance appears to be on the rise in Russia. A survey last year by the independent Levada Center found that 58 percent of ethnic Russians support the slogan "Russia for the Russians." Another Levada poll suggested that 59 percent want the government to slash the inflow of non-Russian immigrants, mostly from former Soviet Caucasus and Asian republics, up from 45 percent in 2002.

Those who argue that racial intolerance goes hand-in-hand with rising authoritarianism may point to a survey released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which found that 66 percent of Russians now see a strong leader, not democracy, as the best form of government, up from 39 percent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A year ago, 19 Russian parliamentarians, mainly from the communist and nationalist Rodina [Motherland] parties, joined 500 scholars and public figures to sign an open letter calling on the public prosecutor to investigate all Jewish organizations as "extremist" groups based on the familiar argument that their conspiratorial activities are the main cause of anti-Semitism.

"No one is called to [account] for this sort of outrageous public appeal, though it was unthinkable just 10 years ago," says Ms. Albats. "More and more, we are seeing Russian chauvinist and anti-Semitic ideas expressed openly, even in major newspapers, and it is accepted."

President Putin has repeatedly spoken up against anti-Semitism and intolerance, last year describing the growth of xenophobia among Russians as "a serious and painful problem.... The state policy is aimed at putting an end to outrages of this kind consistently and resolutely."

Some critics say that beneath the surface, the Kremlin might be encouraging ultranationalist groups as a kind of bogeyman for Putin's successor to run against as the 2008 presidential succession looms.

"There is no doubt the Kremlin and its strategists are playing with xenophobia and the public struggle against it for their own advantage. The game is to create an enemy and achieve victory over it," says Vladimir Prybilovsky, head of Panorama, an independent think tank. "To make people vote for Putin's heir, the Kremlin may have to scare them with something really bad."

Others complain Russian authorities may be sincere, but have not yet moved beyond rhetorical means of confronting the threat. "Even if Putin says the right words about xenophobia, there is still no state strategy to stop it," says Alexander Brod, head of the independent Moscow Bureau of Human Rights. "(Intolerant) moods in the country are growing rapidly, and there is no effective reaction."

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