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Monday, May 15, 2006

Second Major British Publication Rips Russia on Racism

First the Sunday Times blasts Russia's slide intp racist oblivion, and now the vaunted Economist joints the attack with the following lengthy piece from the most recent issue:

A few days before Vladimir Putin's state-of-the nation address on May 10th, a strange, seemingly unrelated apparition presented itself in a Moscow park: some 50 Africans, plus the odd Afghan and Iraqi, carrying rakes. They came to perform a subbotnik—an old Soviet tradition of voluntary civic work. They headed for a wooded glade favoured by barbecuing Muscovites, and began clearing leaves and rubbish. “Good on them,” said an elderly Russian park cleaner. “Friendship between the nations is very important.”

Unfortunately, the idea of international friendship, like the near-defunct tradition of the subbotnik, is less popular in Russia than it was. At the annual Victory Day parade in Red Square on March 9th, Mr Putin attacked “those who...try to sow racial hatred, extremism, and xenophobia.” Well he might: his country is experiencing a plague of racist murder and violence, often committed by neo-Nazi gangs. “The drunks just beat you,” says Romeo, from Cameroon. “The skinheads kill you.” He and his fellow leaf-rakers wanted to underline their contribution to city life. Most have stories of beatings; all avoid the Moscow metro, even in daytime.

Scant consolation though it might be, there are other victims—including Russia's ancient scapegoat, the Jews. Nine were stabbed in January in an attack on a Moscow synagogue. People from the Caucasus and immigrants from Central Asia are also frequent targets, in what is now a nationwide phenomenon. The latest foreign fatality in Voronezh, a university town in central Russia, was a Peruvian (foreign students are drawn to Russia by cheap university fees, but are increasingly taking fright). Two people were killed when an armed gang attacked a Roma camp in the Volgograd region last month.

Beautiful St Petersburg, where Mr Putin will host world leaders at the G8 summit in July, rivals Moscow as the capital of race hatred. A Senegalese student was shot there last month—“the clean-up of the city continues,” crowed an extremist website. Anti-racist campaigners and homosexuals have also been attacked. A Russian Orthodox priest recently blessed agitators outside a Moscow gay club.

Some see the viciousness as the reincarnation of old Russian neuroses that a combination of internationalist rhetoric and strong security services had managed to suppress during Soviet times. Oscar, from Burundi, studied in Moscow in the Brezhnev era and says discipline was the difference. “If I hate you, and nobody is protecting you,” he says, “I can attack you.” But others see the street violence as an extreme manifestation of a newer, broader trend—one evident, in a different way, in Mr Putin's state address.

Victory Day was not the first time that Mr Putin has publicly denounced racism and xenophobia. Yet, as a recent report by Amnesty International catalogued, police, prosecutors and courts remain too slow to recognise racist crimes and too lenient in their punishment. Typically, the killers of a nine-year-old Tajik girl in St Petersburg were recently adjudged to have been motivated by “hooliganism” rather than racism (another nine-year-old, the daughter of a Malian, was stabbed in the throat in St Petersburg, but lived). A racist attack on an official from Russia's north Caucasus in Moscow last month was also classified as hooliganism, until officials were shamed into thinking again.

The devil you know

One plausible explanation for this reticence is an old-fashioned reluctance to admit problems, especially, in a country that justly regards itself as Nazism's vanquisher, the growth of fascism. Dmitry Dubrovsky, of the European University of St Petersburg, says that some officials in his city detect a conspiracy by outsiders to shame St Petersburg. But another theory, endorsed by Vladimir Lukin, Russia's human-rights ombudsman, is that many in the security services secretly sympathise with the skinheads (Mr Dubrovsky agrees that this is true in St Petersburg of many ordinary officers). The police themselves harass ethnic minorities, often to extort money: ten Africans were said to have been detained at a metro station on their way to the Moscow subbotnik.

Attitudes in the security services are not unusual. At the last count, 52% of those polled by the Levada centre supported the idea of “Russia for the [ethnic] Russians”; large numbers confess to hostile feelings to Chechens, Roma and others. “Go into the metro,” says Ma from Guinea-Bissau, “and even the children call you nigger.” Russian children, she says, will not play with hers. A nationalist tendency is evident in attitudes to the rest of the world, too: friendliness towards America and western Europe is declining. It is an odd moment for Russia to assume the ministerial presidency of the Council of Europe—which is, moreover, about to publish a critical report on the country.

A new hostility to the West is not surprising, given the Kremlin's foreign-policy tone. Meddling foreign powers and spying human-rights workers have been reviled. Relations with several neighbours—Georgia and Ukraine, but also Poland—were poisonous, and those with America strained, even before Dick Cheney's critical speech in Vilnius last week (greeted by the Moscow media as a harbinger of a new cold war, but also as evidence that Mr Putin's policies were working). “We see what's happening in the world,” Mr Putin said cryptically on May 10th, in a speech otherwise focused heavily on the declining birthrate. “As the saying goes, comrade wolf knows who to eat and he eats without listening to others.” Less cryptically, he said the arms race was still on.

The relationship between this rhetoric, the Kremlin's bid to revive national pride using tsarist and Soviet symbols, and the hate on Russia's streets, is murky. Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Centre, a Moscow think-tank, sees all of them as different manifestations of feelings of imperial nostalgia. Others think Mr Putin is deliberately tolerating, even cultivating, radical nationalism as a political tactic. Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of parliament, says that Mr Putin may see himself as an emperor, but not as a Führer. Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal politician, argues that the Kremlin is trying to appeal to nationalist instincts but also to portray itself as the country's only defence against them. The security services seem more concerned by leftist groups than rightist ones (some of which profess loyalty to the Kremlin). Meanwhile, liberal politicians are often labelled “fascists.”

From the pogroms of the 19th century to the intermittent racism of the Soviet Union, Russian rulers have tried to manipulate nationalism for their own ends. If that is the Kremlin's game, it is a risky one, and not just for the beleaguered immigrants—as the Kremlin may already have discovered. The Motherland party is widely thought to have been created by the Kremlin in order to drain votes away from the Communists in the parliamentary election of 2003. It was banned from participating in December's local election in Moscow after it ran an anti-immigrant advertisement with the slogan, “Let's rid our city of rubbish.” But Motherland's real crime, many thought, was not being too offensive—but becoming too popular.

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