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Russia: Racist Violence Takes On Political Character

  • Brian Whitmore --> Foreign students stage a rally against the attacks on foreigners in St. Petersburg in April (epa) Violent attacks on ethnic minorities and foreigners in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities have become the focus of international attention. Much of this has examined how ineffective the authorities have been at combating the racist scourge. But analysts have suggested that rather than being an embarrassment for the Kremlin, the wave of skinhead and neo-Nazi violence is actually politically useful as elections and a presidential succession get nearer.

PRAGUE, June 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It sometimes seems that fear -- not hope -- is what drives the Russian electorate. So it isn't surprising that a specter always seems to haunt the country at election time.

Back in 1996, Boris Yeltsin conjured up the threat of resurgent Communists to frighten voters into giving him a second term.

In 2000, Vladimir Putin used the fear of terrorism and Chechen separatists to win the Kremlin.

And seeking reelection in 2004, Putin presented himself as the nation's defender against greedy oligarchs who were bleeding the treasury dry.

2008 Vote

Russia's next presidential election is still 21 months away. But it appears as though the Kremlin is already looking to invoke a once-familiar menace to unnerve voters as the ballot approaches -- fascism:

"Those who are trying again to raise the defeated banners of Nazism, who sow ethnic strife, extremism and xenophobia, are leading the world to a dead end, to senseless bloodshed and cruelty," Putin said. "For this reason, the defeat of fascism must be a lesson and a warning about the inevitability of vengeance."

That was Putin in his May 9 Victory Day speech on Red Square, using the anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat -- and Russians' still-harrowing memories of their suffering in World War II -- to warn against the resurgence of fascist and racist ideals on Russian soil.

It's a threat, unfortunately, that is all too real. Reports of racist violence have become increasingly commonplace.

Russia's Sova center, which monitors extremist activity, says 18 foreigners and non-Slavic Russians have been murdered and nearly 150 injured in racist attacks since the beginning of 2006.

Similar statistics have been reported in recent years, and there is no clear evidence that the number of racially motivated beatings and murders is on the rise.

The banner originally read 'Against Racism' but the 'Against' was rubbed out

But the brazen cruelty of the attacks -- like the 2004 stabbing death of a 9-year-old Tajik girl, and this year's gunning down of a Senegalese student, both in St. Petersburg -- has terrified non-Russians living in Russia and provoked sharp criticism from the international community.

The country now has an estimated 60,000 skinheads -- compared to a total of just 70,000 elsewhere in the world.

It's a trend the Kremlin has vowed to combat.


But the veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev says the Kremlin's new attitude is mostly about politics -- in particular, the politics of presidential succession that will take center stage when Putin's second term expires in 2008.

"The authorities look at the battle with fascism as a mechanism to legitimize themselves. They use this to influence average citizens by saying: 'Better us in power than the fascists,'" Ponomarev said.

Putin, who is constitutionally prohibited from serving a third consecutive term, is eager to ensure a hand-picked successor follows him into the Kremlin with the full support of the public.

Successfully battling the so-called "brown" specter of fascism would be one way to strengthen the support of an already affectionate electorate. It would also dampen anti-Kremlin criticism among the liberal intelligentsia -- and provide the Putin camp with a damning label to use against potential opponents from nationalist parties like Motherland.

The racism strategy may even prove effective in convincing a skeptical West that Putin and his team are the only ones who can prevent chaos from engulfing the country. Nikolai Petrov is a specialist in Russian domestic politics at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"The Kremlin is looking for a threat that can be exploited. The idea is to find something which will be shared by the masses here in this county and the West. If there is a real fascist threat, then something should be done, and this will justify a lot of different moves," Petrov said.

These "different moves," Petrov suggests, could include using less-than-democratic means to ensure a victory for Putin's chosen successor.

They could even mean keeping Putin in power past the expiration of his second term.

"Let's imagine that Mr. Putin will decide to stay for a third term. This idea is not very popular right now in the West, although it is supported by a majority of ordinary Russians. If the West will be forced to choose between Putin and the threat of the destabilization of the country on the other with a clear 'brown' threat, then it would be much more supportive of Putin staying in office," Petrov said.

The Putin camp has already tied the fascism issue to 2008.

Sergei Mironov, a Putin ally and the speaker of the Federation Council, presented proposals to extend the president's term in office just after several racially motivated attacks, including the New Year's Eve stabbing death of a Cameroonian student in St. Petersburg and the knife assault on worshippers in a Moscow synagogue by a man shouting anti-Semitic slogans.

Panel On Religious Freedom

Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrating Orthodox Christmas (CTK, file photo)

RELIGION AND SOCIETY: On December 21, 2005, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a panel discussion on issues related to religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Panelists included CATHERINE COSMAN, a senior policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; FELIX CORLEY, editor of the Forum 18 News Service; and JOHN KINAHAN, Forum 18 assistant editor.
Cosman argued in her presentation that the Russian Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment from the government. She also expressed concern about the estimated 50,000 skinheads active in Russia. Corley focused on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, arguing that many governments in the region "fear institutions they can't control." Kinahan's presentation concentrates on the Uzbek government's assertions that Islamist extremists were behind the May uprising in Andijon.


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

See also:

Central Asia: Region Returns To Muslim Roots

Central Asia: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam

Unholy Alliance? Nationalism And The Russian Orthodox Church

THE COMPLETE STORY: A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.