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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Latynina on Russian Racism

Writing in the Moscow Times, hero journalist Yulia Latyinina documents Russia's neo-Soviet non-policy on racism, which is the same as its neo-Soviet non-policy on AIDS: Ignore the problem and suppress information that it exists. She also points out the important fact that "the Soviet Union collapsed along ethnic lines" (indicating that the Soviet Union in fact never solved Russian racism nor melded a country of unity) and that racism is worse under Putin than Yeltsin even though the economic excuse is much lessened. To sum it up: Russia is a basket case.

An angry crowd trashed Stavropol city buses, hundreds of shouting demonstrators chanted "Russia," and riot police held the mob at bay. As far as I know, only RTVi cable television and Ren-TV broadcast this chaotic scene.

State television stations ran footage of Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev saying "there was no disorder" in Stavropol and that the ministry had opened nine criminal investigations and 51 people had been detained in connection with the nonexistent disturbance. State television quoted the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak, as calling it "an ordinary fight," while rushing off to Stavropol himself.

The contrast couldn't be greater. The authorities simply maintain that nothing special happened. Mobs of Russians scream that Chechens killed two students, while the Interior Ministry produces a composite photo of a murder suspect with freckles and blond hair. We can be sure that the police will haul in a suspect with freckles and blond hair, regardless of his actual guilt or innocence, and that angry mob will refuse to accept that the real offender has been apprehended.

Getting to the truth of what actually happened is of no interest to anyone involved.

The standard of living was worse under Boris Yeltsin than it is under President Vladimir Putin: With Yeltsin there were miners' strikes, lean budgets and war in Chechnya. But at least there weren't pogroms. Nobody blamed the 1998 default crisis on people from the Caucasus. Now that Russia is "better off," people are ready to go after non-Russians.

The Soviet Union collapsed along ethnic lines, and these conflicts are now resurgent in Russia.

There are two points here. The first is that Chechens are implicated in every major interethnic disturbance. Chechens from the village of Novoselskoye fought with Avar villagers from neighboring Moksob, with Kalmyks in Yandyki, with Kabardintsy in Nalchik, and with Russians in Kondopoga.

The second point is that, apart from conflicts with other groups from the Caucasus, the Chechens always come out the winners despite being outnumbered. In Kazakhstan a furious crowd couldn't even take a single home from which a Chechen had supposedly fired a hunting rifle. In Kondopoga, six Chechens allegedly attacked a mob and somehow managed to stab its leader to death.

Russia's current course is doomed to strengthen interethnic rifts, the most dangerous of which is between Russians and Chechens. Russians see it as a conflict between wild animals and civilized humans, but Chechens view it as a wolf pouncing on a flock of sheep. Moscow's hands-off approach only contributes to the problem. Instead of an appropriate government response, all the authorities provide is unofficial crisis management and spin.

The Kremlin is knowingly cultivating hatred. "They have offended us" has now become the leitmotif of the daily news. Russia has been insulted by the Poles, the Georgians, the Estonians, the Americans, the Norwegians, the Central Asians, the Jews and anyone who supports a unipolar world. Somehow the Eskimos have managed to avoid coming in for approbation. And when Putin climbs up on the presidential podium and seems to compare the United States to the Third Reich or talks about the need to "protect ethnic Russians," mobs respond by burning market stalls owned by foreigners. No direct order is necessary -- the president's words are translated into action anyway.

But now the authorities are panicking. Phrases like "an ordinary fight" and "the murderer has freckles" are just attempts to solve problems with the age-old practice of denying their existence. It's like treating a stroke patient by maintaining that he or she is perfectly healthy.

The ironic result is that, while the Kremlin continues to take control of more business assets and cash flows and to reduce personal freedoms, its control over the country continues to ebb.

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