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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Postcard from the Nationalism/Racism Vortex of Putin's Russia

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it's out on patrol.

On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word "Locals" stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming "Down with migrants!"

They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.

"They were humiliating us, and I don't know why," said Zoya Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia's restive Chechnya province who sells cabbage at the market. "They looked for anyone with dark hair and dark skin. It was a circus."

Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about foreigners' place in society.

"Protecting" Russian interests

In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia's immigration laws, citing the need to "protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large."

Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin's request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia's disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone mainstream.

"In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people, well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics," said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. "It has become the dominating idea in society, and that's a bad sign."

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for "locals." The group takes aim at migrants who "violate our laws and traditions," Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, "Don't buy goods from migrants--buy from Russian traders!"

"The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal," said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. "They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don't know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents, and they may have an infection that spreads."

Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. "They're just kids, too young to understand anything," said Elena Ivshina, a trader and ethnic Russian.

While Fateyev's group is building steam, Alexander Belov's Movement Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

Belov, 30, calls Russia's problem with migrants "a disease that needs to be cured right now. I'd even say it's a little too late."

"Russia for Russians"

What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the slogan "Russia for Russians." Fifty-two percent support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia's youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin's push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

"They've been brought up with these nationalist sentiments," said Ali Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of the St. Petersburg African Union.

St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. "The average Russian feels, `These people live here at my expense. I'm poor because of them.' In this way, migrants become the enemies," Nassor said.

A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants. Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked, said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev's head. Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

"They yelled, `Russia for Russians,' and `This is a white wagon,'" Volinkin said.

When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed Soltonoyev and pressed the car's stop button before the train passed into a tunnel.

The attack fractured Soltonoyev's skull and left him in a coma for four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three remain in custody.

1 comment:

Master-Debater said...

I would love to get your opinion on Putin's legacy. We are currently in the midst of a debate on the subject at Please join us. We welcome your point of view to the discussion. Maybe you could educate some of our more naive commenters.