This year has seen a rash of racially motivated incidents. On January 11, 20-year-old Aleksandr Koptsev stabbed eight people in a Moscow synagogue. On February 5, a man from Mali was stabbed to death in St. Petersburg, where in late 2005 a student from Cameroon and an antifascist activist suffered the same fate in separate attacks. On March 25, assailants beat and stabbed a 9-year-old mixed-race girl in St. Petersburg. On April 1, Zaur Tutov, a cultural official from Russia's North Caucasus region, was beaten in Moscow by a group of young men shouting nationalist slogans. And on April 7, Samba Lampsar Sall, a Senegalese student, was shot to death in St. Petersburg by an unknown attacker who left a shotgun emblazoned with a swastika at the scene of the crime. (For a timeline of major racially motivated crimes in Russia over the last two years, click here
The attacks garnered high-profile coverage in the Russia media.
Some in the opposition have dismissed as a publicity stunt an "antifascist pact" signed by a number of political parties in February.
And officials, who frequently downplay the dangers of racist violence, have taken action.
On March 22, a jury in St. Petersburg found seven defendants guilty only of "hooliganism" in the 2004 stabbing death of a 9-year-old Tajik girl, Khursheda Sultonova, acquitting an eighth defendant. But this time, prosecutors appealed what critics derided as a typical example of lax prosecution of hate crimes in Russia. In the Tutov case, federal prosecutors stepped in to request that hate-crime charges be filed despite the initial assessment by Moscow prosecutors that it was a run-of-the-mill incident. Members of the recently created consultative body, the Public Chamber, warned at an April 14 meeting that "the problem of racial intolerance in the country has recently acquired particular urgency," Channel One reported.
But some official actions in the fight against violent xenophobia have sent an oddly mixed message.
Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky signs the "antifascist pact" in Moscow on February 20 (TASS)
Some in the opposition have dismissed as a publicity stunt an "antifascist pact" signed by a number of political parties in February. Signatories had included Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), which has effectively mixed xenophobic rhetoric in the public arena with pro-Kremlin votes in parliament for years. Opposition Yabloko First Deputy Chairman Sergei Ivanenko said that another signatory -- -- the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party -- had not taken "any concrete steps aimed at combating fascism and xenophobia."
Meanwhile, seemingly sanctioned "antifascist" rhetoric -- particularly as trumpeted by the Kremlin-sponsored youth movement Nashi (Us) -- has tended to fixate on vocal foes of the Kremlin. That has deepened doubts about the campaign's sincerity. A May 2005 brochure published by Nashi charged that "bankrupt 'liberals and democrats' today support avowed Nazis," citing as examples the well-known liberal politician Irina Khakamada, head of the Our Choice party, and Yabloko. Nashi implied a similar linkage in a March 2006 brochure. Asked by "Novye izvestia" on April 17 why Nashi described her as a fascist, Khakamada responded, "That's the PR concept Nashi is working with. They're fascists themselves, but so that no one notices this, they accuse people with democratic views of this and label them. It's aimed at idiots." Nashi itself has been linked to football hooligan organizations
noted for their street-fighting proclivities and ties to avowedly xenophobic skinhead groups. Gazeta.ru reported on April 4 that Nashi organizer Aleksei Mitryushin was the leader of the Gallant Steeds fan club (affiliated with Moscow's CSKA soccer team), while fellow Nashists Roman Verbitsky and Vasily Stepanov headed the Gladiator fan club (affiliated with Moscow's Spartak football team). According to gazeta.ru, all three were present at a meeting of Nashi "commissars," as the movement dubs its ringleaders, and Vladislav Surkov, a close Putin aide, in July 2005. At the same time, Mitryushin, Verbitsky, and Stepanov were on file with the Moscow militia unit charged with keeping track of football hooligans and skinheads, gazeta.ru stated.
The Nashi-football ties may be more than incidental. Nashi opponents charged that the movement used its connections with the soccer thug underworld to mobilize two dozen bat-wielding heavies for an August 29, 2005, attack on anti-Kremlin youth activists, including members of the radical National Bolshevik Party (itself no stranger to fascist leanings, particularly in the 1990s). For their part, official representatives of Nashi denied any link to the attack.
Nevertheless, Nashi leader Vasilii Yakemenko told provincial youth in 2005 that he would have enlisted soccer thugs to "sort out" the political demonstrations that rocked Kyiv in late 2004, "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported on August 31, 2005. Yakemenko said, "I would have contacted my colleagues in the Spartak soccer fan movement and they would have assembled 5,000 of their supporters with those blue plastic seats that they bang in the stadiums...and they would have used the seats to chase the 100,000 who came out on the Maidan [central square in Kyiv] to the Dnepr [River]."
'A Democratic Antifascist Movement'
Yakemenko's reported comment reflects the Kremlin's allergic reaction to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and skeptics charge that Nashi, which bills itself as a "democratic antifascist movement," and the official antifascist campaign in general are really intended as a prop for the Kremlin's political designs. Sova Center, which tracks xenophobic and extremist attacks and sentiments in Russia, wrote in an analytical note on April 4 that the official antifascist campaign's aim is "to distract Russian society from a mood of social protest and to discredit the political opposition in the lead-up to elections." Nikita Belykh, the head of the liberal party Union of Rightist Forces, told "Novye izvestia" on March 3: "The authorities today need fascists. They need them so that in 2007 and 2008 they can offer the country a simple choice: black or white, us or them, the 'right party' or the 'fascists.'"
Political maneuvering aside, Russia is a richly multiethnic society with a potentially dangerous capacity for xenophobic conflicts. One divide runs between Christian ethnic Russians and the primarily Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus, where the Chechen conflict continues to simmer at a low boil. Another sizable, identifiable minority comprises migrants -- most of them from Central Asia and the Caucasus. A recent UN study released found that Russia in 2005 was home to the second-largest number of migrants in the world -- 12.1 million.
Racist violence is one of many perils that face migrant workers in Russia. The murder of 9-year-old Sultonova in what many believe was a racist attack garnered considerable media attention despite the St. Petersburg court's "hooliganism" verdict. But as Davlat Khudonazarov, a filmmaker and former presidential candidate in Tajikistan, wrote in "Izvestia" on March 24, hundreds of Tajik migrant workers in Russia each year "die on construction sites, the roads, [or] fall victim to skinheads, crime, and the police."
Statistics vary on the numbers of deaths. Tajikistan's Interior Ministry stated that 246 Tajik citizens died in Russia in the first 11 months of 2005, utro.ru reported on December 3, 2005, with 115 succumbing to illness, 99 killed in accidents, 36 murdered, and six cases unresolved. Khudonazarov put the number of Tajiks who die in Russia each year at 600-700. An April 5 report by Russia's TV-Tsentr claimed that "each year more than 2,000 migrant workers return to Tajikistan in coffins." Karomat Sharipov, head of the Tajik League, told TV-Tsentr: "On the way from Domodedovo Airport in Moscow in 2003, 125 Tajiks vanished. Look at the distance -- it's 22 kilometers. This is real. It happens every day."
The collapse of a Moscow market on February 23 vividly illustrated the prevalence of migrant labor in the lower echelons of the Russian economy. After the disaster, the Emergency Situations Ministry announced that the 66 dead included 45 Azerbaijanis, eight Georgians, six Tajiks, three Uzbeks, and three Russian citizens, the globalrus.ru website reported on February 26. Earlier that month, 12 Tajiks died in two separate fires in Russia, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.
Migrants and minorities are vulnerable communities, and recent events indicate that this is especially true in Russia. Racism and xenophobia may be the most disturbing of the threats they face, but police corruption, spotty medical care, inadequately defended rights, and an aging infrastructure take a heavier toll.
Official efforts to raise awareness of hate crimes are a positive development, despite the subtext of political chicanery. If these efforts are genuine, perhaps they will extend to the less media-friendly -- but more pervasive -- ills that pose as great a danger to the Russian majority as they do to the migrants and minorities who are targeted by racists and xenophobes.