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Russia: Rights Watchdogs Warn Of Emerging Nationalist Paramilitary Groups

A skinhead protest in Moscow (file photo) More than half of Russians have xenophobic views -- that is the charge coming from Russian human rights campaigners today. In a new report, rights groups say that -- despite progress in some areas -- racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism remain rife in Russia. But what worries watchdogs most are recent moves by nationalist-patriotic movements to form paramilitary groups.

Moscow, 15 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian human-rights advocates gathered in Moscow on today to assess the
level of racism, ethnic discrimination, and anti-Semitism in the country for the first half of 2005.

The results, they told reporters, are not encouraging.

Semyon Charny is an expert at the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and the author of the new report.

He said xenophobic feelings remain widespread in Russia. In a recent nationwide poll, Charny said over half of the
respondents espoused nationalist views. "The level of xenophobia remains stable and high," he said. "Between 50 and 60 percent of the population sympathize, to various degrees, with nationalist slogans such as 'Russia for Russians'. The first people to inspire irritation are the Caucasians, Central Asians, and Chinese. Jewish people rank third or fourth."

According to the report, Chechens continue to top the list of the most-hated people in Russia. It is a hostility human rights
advocates largely attribute to the war in Chechnya that has been claiming lives daily on both sides for most of the past

But there was also encouraging news. The report said the number of racially motivated murders has dwindled in the first half of this year, with 10 foreigners killed. That number was three times higher during the same period in 2004.

The number of such attacks and killings, however, still remains much higher than in European countries.

The report comes just days after two Polish diplomatic personnel and a Polish journalist were beaten up and
hospitalized in Moscow, sparking a diplomatic row.

Human rights groups say some progress has also been made in recognizing racially motivated attacks and punishing assailants on charges of incitement of ethnic and religious hatred.

Russian law-enforcement agencies have long angered watchdogs by dismissing racial attacks as mere hooliganism.

In the first half of 2005, however, five people have been sentenced for inciting ethnic and religious hatred. Only one
person was sentenced on the charge for the same period last year.

Despite these positive trends, rights advocates expressed strong concerns over recent moves by Russian nationalist-
patriotic groups to form their own armed groups.

Alla Gerber, who heads Russia's Holocaust Foundation, said these political organizations are rapidly trading propaganda speeches for weapons. "The most deadly for me is the transition of national patriotic parties and movements from propaganda to calls for terror," she said. "This is the latest and most important development. Before, there
were words, propaganda, but now there are calls for an open, organized terror."

Charny said Russia's numerous nationalist-patriotic movements are beginning to openly state their plans to form armed
paramilitary groups and seize power by force. Some of these groups, Charny added, organize forums during which they explain to their members how to get hold of weapons.

Slavyansky Soyuz (Slavic Union) is one of these groups. It is known to have called for an armed uprising and broken into the websites of Russian human-rights organizations.

Slavyansky Soyuz's own website features the group's insignia, a symbol approximating the Nazi swastika. It offers links to a prominent skinhead website. It also displays pictures of youths with their right hand raised in the air in imitation of the
Nazi salute, and a series of articles disparaging various ethnic and religious groups.

In parallel, Charny says skinhead groups are also on the rise and are now active in all Russian regions: "Concerning skinheads, their numbers are definitely growing, they are spreading to more and more cities. Now, we can say there is not a single region that does not have a band of skinheads."

According to official figures, there are 10,000 skinheads in Russia. But human rights groups and experts contend the real
figure is more than five times higher. According to the report, skinheads were responsible for most of the racially motivated
attacks and killings this year.