Moscow, 26 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Republic of Karelia, in northwest Russia, complained to local prosecutors last month. They said two circulars in the region published ads offering homes for rent to Russians only. Such discriminatory ads, they protested, offend their dignity and are illegal.
A group of Muslims in St. Petersburg is preparing a similar complaint.
Both groups have threatened to bombard courts with lawsuits if prosecutors fail to take action.
In the Russian language, the word “Russian,” or “russkii,” refers to one's ethnicity rather than to one's citizenship -- a person holding a Russian passport is defined as “rossiiskii.”
Nafigulla Ashirov, the supreme mufti of the Asian part of Russia, told RFE/RL he strongly backed the complaints.
“Such advertisements have, indeed, a racist character that is absolutely unacceptable in a multiethnic, multiconfessional country," Ashirov said. "I can’t image anyone in the United States, for example, placing an advertisement saying, ‘flat to let -- blacks need not apply.’ This would spark a big scandal.”
Legal Or Illegal?
Anna Volodina is a lawyer at the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that provides legal support to mass media and monitors media rights abuses in Russia.
Volodina says questions about whether such advertisements are legal have no clear-cut answer, since, she says, Russian laws on civil rights are incomplete and loosely worded.
“There is no straightforward answer," Volodina said. "The law here is so ambiguous that you can interpret it in different ways. Norms related to the constitutional rights of citizens -- such as the right to the absence of discrimination against sexual, ethnic, and other characteristics -- are very general. There is no clear-cut, strict legal norm that says this type of advertisement is illegal.”
For that reason, Volodina says she would not agree to defend Karelia's and St. Petersburg's Muslims were they to file a lawsuit.
In comparison, most Western countries harshly proscribe discrimination in housing matters. This, however, does not mean that housing discrimination is not practiced in the West -- but it tends to carry legal penalties.
The website of the United States’ Housing and Urban Development Department states that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the sale and rental of dwellings based on race, skin color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap.
Under U.S. law, both the person who writes a discriminatory advertisement and the medium that propagates it can be held liable. As the U.S. Fair Housing Act stipulates, “It is unlawful to make, print, or publish…any statement with respect to the rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race and sex.”
Mouloud Aounit, chairman of France’s Movement against Racism and for Friendship between People (MRAP), a group that monitors and seeks justice against perpetrators of discrimination, told RFE/RL that such ads would be unthinkable in France.
“In France, this is totally illegal," Aounit said. "There isn’t a single employer, owner or landlord today who would dare make a discriminatory offer public. Because we have laws that criminally punish any advertisement or offer that discriminates against a population on the basis of its [ethnic] membership, skin color, race, nationality, or religion.”
MRAP is known for launching -- and winning -- prominent racism-related lawsuits. In 1996 and 1997, MRAP filed charges against former actress and animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot for writing an article in a top French daily that criticized Muslims for their ritual slaughter of animals. She was convicted and fined the equivalent of $1,600 dollars.