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Post-Communist States: Analysis From Washington -- How Not To Fight An Ancient Evil

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Many governments and political leaders in the post-communist states are responding to manifestations of anti-semitism and ethnic extremism in ways that seem certain to make these problems worse.

Some mainstream leaders deny that any problem exists or alternately claim that it is so marginal that it need not be addressed. Others assume that banning the symbols of such extremist groups will be sufficient to deal with these phenomenon.

And yet a third group of governments and political leaders in this region appear to believe that the best way to deal with such groups is to adopt part of the extremists' program in order to undercut the extremists themselves.

The history of Western Europe suggests that none of these strategies will work. Even more, it indicates that democratic leaders must take an active role in fighting such phenomena lest the latter expand and threaten democracy itself.

Since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, governments and mainstream political leaders across this region have routinely denounced anti-semitism and ultra-nationalism.

Sometimes leaders make these declarations because of pressure from the West. Sometimes they do so out of a genuine commitment. Sometimes they speak from a recognition of just what these extremist movements might mean to the still fragile democratic systems in their countries.

But a rising tide of anti-semitic and ultra-nationalist activities across this region shows that these leaders have not yet found a way to implement these commitments.

Not surprisingly, many governments and mainstream political leaders have dismissed incidents like the recent attacks on the Moscow and Riga synagogues as the work of a few extremists who enjoy little support in the broader population.

That is certainly what many in these countries and the West want to believe, but public opinion polls in these countries show that far more people continue to have anti-semitic and extreme nationalistic views.

One recent poll in the Russian Federation, for example, found that approximately half the population could be described as anti-semitic to one extent or another.

And consequently if the authorities fail to bring those responsible for such actions to justice, many in these populations are likely to conclude that the extremists enjoy even more support than they do. And such conclusions in turn will give these groups more influence, not less.

Faced with this challenge, other leaders are considering taking actions that would ban the symbols of the extremists such as the Nazi swastika. Such steps, these leaders believe, should be sufficient to keep the extremists at bay.

However, as the experience of Western Europe shows, such bans by themselves may work in an unintended way. They may even give extremist groups the ability to win support among people who do not share their core views but who are angry at the government for other reasons.

But the most dangerous pattern in the post-communist region now, however, does not lie with these attempts at denial either by claiming the problem does not exist or outlawing hated symbols.

Rather it is when governments or political leaders succumb to the temptation to exploit anti-semitic or ultra-nationalist rhetoric or actions to win support for themselves.

Many times politicians do this without any apology. Thus, Russian communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov used openly anti-semitic language in his effort to win votes in the last Russian presidential race. But often political leaders advance a different argument, one suggesting that they can only isolate the extremists and win support for themselves by adopting part of the program of the extremists themselves.

Unfortunately, all too many both in these countries and abroad appear willing to accept that argument at least implicitly, failing to see that it can open the door to even worse horrors.

A tragic example of this is the decree issued in October 1993 by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and backed by President Boris Yeltsin calling for the expulsion from the Russian capital of "persons of Caucasian nationality."

Playing to the hatred many Russians feel toward persons from the North Caucasus, Luzhkov and his backers apparently felt that they needed to take this step to build up their own support in the wake of the bloody conflict between Yeltsin and the old Supreme Soviet.

But despite being in violation of the Russian Constitution and despite its ominous resonance with Stalin's decrees against Jews nearly 50 years ago, this decree is still on the books nearly five years after the conflict that was used to justify it.

And even if, as some like to suggest, Luzhkov's decree is now enforced in an indifferent manner, its continued existence not only casts a stain on Russian democracy but almost inevitably encourages other forms of ethnic extremism.

That danger -- and it exists in many places across this region -- underscores why it is too soon to declare victory over these ancient evils and why it is absolutely necessary that everyone involved continue the fight.