Caucasian minorities find hostile home in new Russia

A recent, fatal skinhead rampage forces Russians to confront growing racism.

If they would listen, Gasan Makhmudov could tell Russians shocking facts about how their society has changed.

"Russians used to be tolerant and easygoing, but now they seem tense and full of hate," says the former construction worker, who sells fruit in Moscow's Dorogomilovskaya market. He would rather stay home in his native Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Caucasus republic, but there are no jobs there, he says, and he has a family to feed.

Russians "despise all Caucasians," Mr. Makhmudov says. "You have to behave in a certain way - keep your eyes down. Never contradict a Russian. If you talk back to a policeman, you'll be beaten for sure."

Human rights experts say Russia's new racist mood often spills over into violence against the darker-skinned people from the Caucasus, who are the majority of Moscow's market traders. Often the violence is meted out by police, with no official report made.

But even President Vladimir Putin took note last weekend, after gangs of racist "skinhead" youths killed one person and seriously injured at least 10 others in rampages said to be in honor of Hitler's birthday, April 20.

Words vs. deeds

In Russia, which lost 26 million people fighting the Nazis in World War II, the news hit like a bombshell. "In a multiracial society like Russia, this is absolutely unacceptable," Mr. Putin said in televised remarks. He added that police would get orders to extend greater protection to minorities.

Analysts and human rights workers say that while Putin's words are welcome, he has not correctly identified the problem. In post-Soviet Russia, the Caucasus has become the main area of political and ethnic instability, and the Kremlin's strong-armed attempts to assert control have done much to brutalize and divide Russian society. Two savage wars to put down a secessionist rebellion in the Caucasus republic of Chechnya have killed tens of thousands, and made "Chechen" a synonym for "terrorist" and "criminal" in the minds of many Russians.

"We find popular hatred toward Caucasians, and Chechens in particular, rises and falls according to the news from the war front," says Lev Gudkov, a sociologist with the VTsIOM public opinion agency in Moscow.

On one level, the growing "skinhead" violence against Caucasian minorities in Russian cities may be seen as the aping of an Internet-driven worldwide movement of fascist-minded youths. Russia's faltering economy also plays a role: Market reforms have led to mass poverty and disillusionment for many youth, who then target relatively prosperous Caucasian market vendors as scapegoats.

"The fascism emerging here wears a Russian face, it wields Russian passions and prejudices, and its roots are in our own conditions," says Denis Dragunsky, an expert at the National Project Institute, a Moscow think tank

Analysts and human rights activists say that if Putin is serious about combatting racism, he must recognize that the state is a major part of the problem.

"The readiness to use extreme force in dealing with interethnic problems was demonstrated by the Russian government, and that's the example before the whole society," says Andrei Zdravomyslev, an ethnic expert with the Moscow-based Institute of Social and National Issues.

Many Caucasian market vendors say they fear the Moscow police much more than the small groups of skinheads roaming the streets. Liana, a vegetable vendor from the Caucasus republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, who asked that her last name not be used, says police beat up her son "because he was too slow in showing his documents."

Calls for change

An antiracist educational campaign, beginning with the police forces, would be one sign the Kremlin is ready to start tackling the issue, say experts. "We need special programs for the security forces, the Army, local government officials and the population at large," says Mr. Zdravomyslev. "Tolerance and cooperation need to be learned all over again in this society."

Efforts to promote minorities are also needed, he says. "We have a multiethnic society, but this is not well reflected on Russian state TV, or in the Kremlin for that matter. If we are to believe in change, then it is urgent to see ... fresh examples in these places."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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