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Russia: Activists Say State, Media, Fuel Violence Against Roma

By Karen Agamirov and Claire Bigg --> (RFE/RL) Rights groups have called on the Russian authorities and on the media to halt what they described as countrywide discrimination against Roma. Their call came in response to the recent killing of two Roma in the Volgograd region.

MOSCOW, April 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On April 13, a group of young men armed with baseball bats and metal rods attacked a Romany family in the Volgograd region.

They beat an 80-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man to death, and severely injured a 3-year-old girl.

More Hooliganism?

Prosecutors have detained three young men in connection with the attack. But Roma and rights activists are angry at prosecutors for launching the investigation under charge of hooliganism, which carries only light sentences.

Leading Roma figures and rights campaigners gathered in Moscow for a roundtable on April 19 to discuss the situation of Roma in Russia.

A 2002 census put the number of Roma in Russia at 183,000. However, Romany leaders say the number is much higher.

Media Coverage

Discrimination and violence against Roma, they agreed, will not stop as long as the Russian media continues to portray Roma as drug dealers and criminals.

Aleksandr Bariyev, the president of the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Russian Roma, urged Russian journalists to change their attitude toward Roma.

"I would like to call on the media to support all of us, all ethnic groups. You must stop writing articles that contain no concrete facts, no concrete evidence, because your articles and your programs form people's attitudes towards Roma, wrong and negative attitudes," Bariyev said. "Let's combat this problem together. I am convinced that thanks to you, journalists, our society can become civilized."

Bariyev called on radio stations and television channels to give Roma representatives one hour of broadcast every month to promote their culture and traditions.

Violence Against Roma

Attacks on Roma are common in Russia. Some newspapers condemn such attacks. But many publications, also, turn a blind eye to this type of violence, and, in some cases, have even welcomed it.

In the Siberian village of Iskitim, in the Novosibirsk Oblast, attacks on Romany settlements took place in February, April, and November 2005. Houses were ransacked and burned, and as a result 40 Romany families lost their homes.

A newspaper in Novosibirsk, "Vecherny Novosibirsk," praised the attackers, whom it described as "national avengers," for turning Iskitim into a drug-free zone. "Moskovsky komsomolets," a leading Russian tabloid, has also carried hateful comments about Roma.

Rights activists have long accused the authorities of encouraging crimes against Roma and other ethnic minorities by failing to take action.

Politicians Fanning The Flames

A number of politicians have also spoken out against Russia's Roma.

One deputy from the western Russian city of Yaroslavl has publicly called for pogroms against Roma on several occasions. In April 2005, he set up a group whose members smashed the windows of cars belonging to alleged Romany drug dealers.

Anti-Roma statements can also be heard in the federal parliament. State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Roizman has openly expressed support for the expulsion of Roma from their homes.

In the city of Arkhangelsk, in northern Russia, local authorities last year drove out a whole Romany encampment. Law-enforcement agencies carried out 264 inspections last year in this encampment, but the only crimes they found the Roma guilty of were violations of passport registration rules, harassment with the aim of fortune telling, and, in one case, theft. In addition, these Roma were not legally entitled to work since the authorities refused to extend their temporary registration.

No Aid Programs

Nadezhda Demeter is a senior researcher at the Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the vice president of the International Roma Union. She told the roundtable there is no political will in Russia to improve the fate of Roma.

"The low level of education of the mass of Roma and the unsanitary conditions in the villages in which they live are at the root of such discrimination," Demeter said. "It is absolutely essential to change all this, but even a big organization like ours cannot change all his, we need government support. We wrote letters [to the government] in 2000, in 2003, and in 2005, but of course we receive negative replies. No special federal programs to raise the social and economic standards of Roma are set up."

Participants at the roundtable called on the government to adopt a resolution recognizing Roma as an indigenous people of Russia who arrived in the country five centuries ago. The resolution, they said, should order law-enforcement organs to respect the constitutional rights of Roma.