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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Oh Dear God. Here Comes Belov.

The New York Times reports that crazed racist maniac Aleksandr Belov is now mainstream in Russia. Say goodnight, Gracie. Belov is so handy for "President" Putin, since he accomplishes Putin's goals and takes the blame.

Aleksandr A. Belov found wide publicity last year when the organization he created gave a cash award to a Russian woman accused of stabbing an Armenian taxi driver to death. During her trial, covered with lurid relish by the news media, she testified that the driver had tried to rape her. “She rid Moscow of a rapist,” Mr. Belov told a radio station at the time. Not just a rapist, however: a rapist from abroad. He went on to assert that half of all serious crimes were committed by immigrants, the issue at the heart of his personal mission and, by all appearances, his growing public prominence.

A court convicted the woman, Aleksandra Ivannikova. But the verdict was later overturned after a public outcry amplified in no small part by Mr. Belov and the group he started four years ago, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration.

Now after years on the fringes of polite conversation, Mr. Belov’s views — unabashedly hostile to foreigners, at times unflinchingly racial in character — are no longer just tapping a nativistic undercurrent, but moving into the mainstream of the political debate. Or perhaps the mainstream is moving toward them.

“The president has made statements in the last couple of weeks that are practically identical to what we were calling for a year ago,” Mr. Belov said in a lengthy interview on Wednesday, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin. “I cannot say that our group directly influenced the president, but we identified this problem earlier.”

The problem, in his view, is immigrants, almost all of them former comrades of the Soviet Union, divided now not only by new borders but also by religion and ethnicity. Like immigrants everywhere, they have come in search of work. And as elsewhere, their presence has fueled resentment, cultural clashes and, especially here in Russia, a wave of racial violence that has included at least 39 racially motivated killings this year, according to Sova, an organization that monitors hate crimes.

On Oct. 5, Mr. Putin gave such simmering feelings a public endorsement, denouncing the “semi-gangs, some of them ethnic” that control Russia’s wholesale and retail markets, where many migrants work. He said markets should be regulated “with a view to protect the interests of Russian producers and population, the native Russian population.” Mr. Putin’s remarks echoed complaints voiced widely last month in Kondopoga, a small mill town in northern Russia. A bar fight there ended with the deaths of two ethnic Russians and led to mass protests and ultimately a violent rampage on Oct. 2 that destroyed markets and other businesses owned by Chechens and other immigrants, who fled the town in fear. A common grievance heard afterward was that the newcomers had criminally cornered the city’s markets. “Criminal groups play a major role in markets,” Mr. Putin said a month later. “And all of this results in our citizens being rightly indignant.”

In Kondopoga that day, standing and holding a microphone, was Mr. Belov. His exact remarks — whether he called for the expulsion of the migrants or not — remain a matter of dispute, but he is unapologetic about what unfolded there. “Russians are a sufficiently tolerant people,” he said during the interview, conducted in a Japanese restaurant in southern Moscow. “We have lived a long time with a huge number of people. We are like a family. And one day the mother-in-law comes to visit, and everything is fine. But then the mother-in-law brings her brother, her mother, uncles, aunts. Then they decide to live forever in your apartment. And you have to say, ‘Mother-in-law, you cannot come to visit anymore.’ ”

Mr. Belov is 30, part of the first post-Soviet generation in Russia, a country that is still struggling, in a way, to define itself and its ideology. The Soviet Union endeavored to erase ethnic and racial boundaries, at least officially. And its collapse gave rise to a new Russian nationalism, founded on the language, culture and history of the Russian Empire, on the Orthodox Church and on an abiding preoccupation with ethnic identity.

He said Russia, despite its ethnic diversity, was never a country open to immigration or assimilation, but rather an empire that conquered others, who then had to adapt to the majority’s values. “Russia is not, like the United States, a country that was founded by immigrants,” he said. “It was founded as a nationalist state.”

Post-Soviet Russia has produced other nationalists. Some are blatant racists operating in the shadows. Some are members of religious or social organizations. Still others are politicians, most notably the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a former presidential candidate known for his clownish antics and expressions of xenophobia. Mr. Belov is far less flamboyant and, he said, uninterested in politics — or at least becoming a politician. “Elections in Russia,” he said, “are just a formality.” Instead, he vows to throw his support to any party that “subscribes to our views.”

He grew up in Moscow, the son of parents who worked in science. He has spent his working life in civic groups. He was a member of Pamyat, an ultranationalist organization that emerged in the chaos of the Soviet collapse but has since faded from public view, with many of its leaders jailed for anti-Semitic statements and acts. His family name was originally Potkin, but he changed it, he said, to disassociate himself from his previous position at Pamyat. (Belov is derived from the Russian word for white.)

Mr. Belov argues that his cause is not based on race, but solely on the issue of immigration, and the illegal sort above all. He created the Movement Against Illegal Immigration in 2002 in response to racially charged incidents in small cities near Moscow: a gang rape in Khimki blamed on immigrants and a fight between immigrants and local residents in Krasnoarmeisk. For a time, the group, known here by its initials in Russian as D.N.P.I., existed largely in cyberspace. Its members railed against immigrants and their crimes, but also against citizens of Russia, especially those from Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus, a predominately Muslim region. (“In the Caucasus, people live on a different civilizational level of development,” Mr. Belov said.)

Raising money online and gathering political support among like-minded politicians, the group has become more organized. It now claims thousands of members in branches across all of Russia. Last November, at the time of Ms. Ivannikova’s acquittal, Mr. Belov’s group joined others in a mass demonstration in Moscow on a newly created holiday known as Day of National Unity.

Rights organizations denounced the march as an ugly expression of hate and a mockery of the holiday, which replaced the old one commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution. The authorities also appeared shocked by the crowd and the message, though they had granted a permit for the rally. A year later, at Mr. Putin’s directive, the authorities have begun the most aggressive campaign against immigrants to date. The arrests of four Russian military officers for spying in Georgia last month precipitated a wave of harassment against Georgians living here. The authorities have closed casinos, restaurants and markets where Georgians worked and deported hundreds of Georgians, including more this week, saying they were here illegally. The anti-Georgian campaign has roots in the Kremlin’s hostility to Georgia’s politics and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, of course. Its results, however, fit seamlessly with Mr. Belov’s prescription for what ails Russia.

Mr. Belov and the movement have not been fully embraced by the authorities. Dozens of the movement’s members have been arrested for holding unsanctioned protests; Mr. Belov himself was detained briefly in July. The group has applied for a permit to hold another Day of National Unity march, but has not yet received one. Mr. Belov said the Kremlin feared all public protests, wary of what he called “this mythical orange revolution,” referring to the mass protests in Ukraine in 2004 that overturned a fraudulent election. “The government,” he said, “should not be afraid of its own people.”

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