MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Racist attacks are on the increase in Russia and are becoming a threat to national security, President Dmitry Medvedev has said.
Medvedev expressed his concern for growing "extremist attacks" at a meeting with top interior ministry officials which looked at the impact of the economic crisis on crime.
"Extremist attacks are causing great concern," Medvedev said in televised remarks. "Last year...the number of such attacks grew by nearly 30 percent."
"Russia is a multinational and multi-confessional country and such crimes...are a threat to national security," he added.
The Moscow-based rights group SOVA said that last year at least 96 people were killed and over 400 injured in a growing wave of racist attacks.
Nationals from Central Asian ex-Soviet republics and foreigners of Asian and African origin are the most frequent victims of street attacks by skinheads and other extremists.
Rights groups have warned that the economic crisis is providing rich soil for extreme nationalist groups to exploit and further their cause.
A top interior ministry official attending Medvedev's speech said far-right groups were becoming a bigger threat than terrorism.
"Extremism is becoming a serious social problem, whose destructive potential is equal or in some aspects stronger than that of the terrorist threat," Deputy Interior Minister Yevgeny Shkolov said.
The Kremlin has pledged zero tolerance for racist attacks, but few of them have been properly investigated.
'Crisis Leads To Crime'
Medvedev at the same time warned that some migrants from former Soviet republics may resort to crime if they lose their jobs in the economic downturn.
Millions of foreign workers have poured into Russia in recent years to take up unpopular and badly paid jobs in construction and retail.
But many have been hit by a wave of lay-offs that has seen 2 million people in Russia losing their jobs since summer. At least another 1 million lay-offs are expected in 2009.
"Amid a two-fold reduction in the labor market for foreign workers, not only the illegal use of workforce, but also a general worsening of the crime situation is possible," Interfax quoted Medvedev as saying.
"It is known that crime from citizens who arrive from abroad is constantly growing," he said.
Medvedev also told Interior Ministry officials that the economic crisis could encourage Islamic radicals in southern regions to step up their activities.
In the past year, the number of attacks against officials and police has grown considerably in the North Caucasus regions of Daghestan and Ingushetia.
"Extremists are stepping up their terrorist activities. At the same time they are trying to wage a campaign of discrediting the authorities of the North Caucasus republics," Medvedev said.