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Moscow Mayor Initiates Anti-Xenophobia Campaign

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian ultranationalists give the Nazi salute during a rally in Moscow. (file photo)

Russian ultranationalists give the Nazi salute during a rally in Moscow. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Unnerved by nationalist violence that broke out in downtown Moscow late last year, the city government has launched a well-funded campaign to combat xenophobia in the Russian capital.

The 110 million-ruble (nearly $4 million) effort will include an advertising campaign under the slogan "Don't support racism," a series of roundtables, a website, and six documentary films celebrating cultural difference.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin signed the program into law last week. The move appeared to be a sharp break from Sobyanin's predecessor, Yury Luzhkov, who was widely criticized by rights activists for doing little to fight racist attacks.

Dmitry Orlov, general director at the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, says massive nationalist riots that broke out in Manege Square near the Kremlin in December convinced the authorities that the problem of xenophobia needed to be addressed.

"It seems to me that the authorities are seriously perplexed by the events at the Manege, by the need to increase tolerance and to reduce interethnic tension," Orlov says. "I think the sincerity of their aims is confirmed in the fairly significant amount of funds being put toward it here."

In April, the Moscow City Court banned the Movement Against Illegal Migration, a group linked to the violence in Manege Square.

'On The Rise'

Fears of a new wave of nationalist violence spread last week following the assassination of former army Colonel Yury Budanov in Moscow on June 10. Budanov became a hero to nationalist groups when he was convicted of kidnapping and strangling a Chechen girl in 2003. He was released on parole in 2008.

In anticipation of potential trouble, police beefed up security at Moscow's central squares on the Russia Day holiday weekend. They also detained a dozen nationalists for attempting to commemorate Budanov's killing on Manege Square.

Mukhammad Amin Madzhumder, president of the Federation of Russian Migrants, welcomed the new anti-xenophobia program but stressed that the city has had a poor record on the issue thus far.

"There is a very high level of xenophobia in the Russian capital," says Madzhumder. "Everyone knows that assault, murder, and humiliation takes place on a massive scale. Further, there is no broad informational work among the youth."

He adds: "The people who use the young in their various nationalist organizations take no responsibility. The Moscow government is inactive. Surely these extremist organizations need to be punished and liquidated. In the meantime, xenophobia and extremist violence is on the rise."

Can It Work?

Likewise, Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which monitors ethnic attacks, warned that the experience of "ineffective" past anti-xenophobia programs does not bode well for the new one. He added, however, that no program to date has been as well funded as the current effort.

Verkhovsky says the new program's success will largely depend on how well it is implemented, specifically the 22 million ruble ($788,000) allocation for social advertising.

He also questioned the utility of some parts of the planned campaign.

"In some cases, the ideas themselves are not very good. For instance, it is very popular here to organize artistic events and festivals of the arts of various peoples as a way of fighting for tolerance," says Verkhovsky. "I don't think this is going to have any impact on the level of tolerance whatsoever. If people don't like someone, then it is not because they sing and dance badly, but because of something completely different."

The program also promises to support events on holidays of different cultures and confessions and organize anti-xenophobia events, the daily "Vedomosti" reported, quoting city officials.

Local authorities also aim to make it harder for employers to hire illegal foreigner migrants for low-pay jobs, "Vedomosti" reported. Officials also plan to reach out to legal migrant workers to help them adapt to what they describe as Moscow's "cultural norms."

Break With Recent Past

Two months ago, security services in Moscow uncovered what they called an "underground town" of 110 illegal migrants living in a bomb shelter. Officials said that the migrants were making needles and blades for sewing machines.

Late last year, Sobyanin said "several million" migrant workers were living in Moscow, although only 250,000 are officially registered to work. Last year approximately 10,000 illegal migrants were deported from Russia.

Orlov says Sobyanin's administration is distancing itself from Luzhkov's hard-line approach to migrants and instead is offering a mix of carrots and sticks.

"I haven't heard announcements from Sobyanin or any of the bureaucrats in City Hall while Sobyanin's been in charge that could be described as intolerant or aggressive toward one nationality," Orlov says.

According to the Sova Center's statistics, 11 people have been killed in racially motivated attacks in Russia so far this year.

Life sentences for two nationalist serial killers this week in St. Petersburg have highlighted the problem facing the country.

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