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Russia: Racist Attacks Plague St. Petersburg

This week, St. Petersburg officials arrested four young men for the murder earlier this month of Roland Eposeka, a 29-year-old student from the Congo. Initially, police said the murder was not racially motivated, but now prosecutors are at least allowing for that possibility. On 26 September, Aleksei Mayakov, head of the police department of major investigations, told reporters the accused do not appear to be members of any extremist groups. However, law enforcement officials are checking information about their possible participation in other attacks on foreigners.

According to "Gazeta," which covered Mayakov's press conference, the leader of the group of young men that attacked Eposeka was arrested earlier for beating up a German citizen of Asian extraction. When he was arrested in that incident, he was wearing a T-shirt that read "Daesh russkii les bez churok i suchkov!", a punning plea for a Russia without Central Asians.

White Energy

Aleksandr Vinnikov, a member of a nongovernmental working group defending the rights of national minorities, told RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau on 23 September that unfortunately such incidents usually occur with the beginning of each new school year. "I think there is a substantial basis to suggest that this [attack] was not accidental," Vinnikov said. "The murder of foreign students is simply a programmatic part of the activities of the extremist organizations."

Eposeka is just one victim of numerous recent attacks on foreign students in the St. Petersburg area. A week after his death, a Jordanian student was knifed by two unknown assailants. That student lived, but others haven't been so lucky. In March 2004, a Syrian student died when he was thrown in front of a metro train. In October 2004, a Vietnamese student bled to death after being stabbed 37 times in an attack outside a St. Petersburg metro station, according to "Tainyi sovetnik," No. 142. Fourteen members of the group Belaya Energiya were arrested in connection with that incident, according to "Delovoi Peterburg" on 15 September. (The founders of Belaya Energiya took their inspiration from the U.S. group White Power, but mistranslated the term into "White Energy.")

Vinnikov believes the "fascist movement in Russia has reached a new stage of institutionalization." "The number of these groups have simply been multiplying day by day in recent years," he said. Their function, according to Vinnikov, is to make society "accustomed to and accept things such as the murder of foreigners, violence on the basis of nationality, and racial intolerance."

A Matter Of Money

The situation has at least gotten so bad that one of the city's leading business newspapers wondered recently if the violence could stem the profitable flow of foreign students to the city. According to "Delovoi Peterburg," St. Petersburg is Russia's top destination for foreign students. Around 10,000 of the 33,000 foreigners studying in Russia attend the city's institutes of higher learning. The rector of one leading technical university, who wished to remain anonymous, told the daily that the city could lose $20 million in revenues if the violence triggered a massive outflow of foreign students.

St. Petersburg is a magnet for foreign students, and the foreign students appear to be a magnet for criminals. Every third crime against a foreign student in Russia is committed in St. Petersburg or the surrounding Leningrad Oblast, "Delovoi Peterburg" reported. "Moskovskii komsomolets" noted on 27 September that "St. Petersburgers really don't like it when their city is referred to as the 'bandit city'; however, there are enough people in St. Petersburg who have the full right to call this the crime capital of Russia -- students from Asia and Africa." Other African students confirmed that the beating that resulted in Eposeka's death was not the first he endured during his time in the city.

In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets," Aliu Tunkara, chairman of African Unity, an organization for Africans living in Russia, explained that he and his fellow Africans cannot turn to the police for help. Tunkaru alleged that extremist groups operate with the assistance of the police. "Do you know how 'pleasant' it is to chat with our police officers? At each step, you hear such expressions as 'hey, chief gorilla, come here!'" he said. Tunkara believes foreigners face an easier situation in Moscow because embassies are located there. "The smallest problem -- you appeal to the embassy and immediately get a reaction," he said. "But in Petersburg no one wants to talk to us in general."

Constructive Engagement?

After Eposeka's murder, his fellow foreign students held an emergency meeting at the St. Petersburg Forestry Academy where he was studying. According to "Moskovskii komsomlets," a deputy from the city's Legislative Assembly attended and suggested that "dark-skinned" students sit down at the negotiating table with the leaders of skinhead organizations "in order to come to a constructive agreement."

In an interview with "Tainyi sovetnik" on 26 September, Ali Nassor, a founder of African Unity, said he supported the idea. "Many people think this would serve as an advertisement for the nationalist movement, but I am sure that this would have the opposite effect," Nassor said. "This will be an open debate, and before the television cameras the level of intellect and understanding on both sides would be immediately clear, because the basic problem of the Nazis is their lack of knowledge of elementary things. For example, they believe our peoples are primitive and forget about the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.... I hope that we will be able to find a common language with Russia."

Run As Fast As You Can

In the meantime, however, the St. Petersburg's prosecutor's office is reportedly working on a brochure that details recommendations for foreign students to avoid trouble in the city, according to "Moskovskii komsomolets." "In the case of a threat of a scuffle, quicken your pace," the pamphlet reportedly reads. "Do not be afraid to look back in order to confirm that someone is following you. If you decide to run, do this as fast as possible."

See also:

"Rights Watchdogs Warn Of Emerging Nationalist Paramilitary Groups"

"Rights Groups Say Fascism, Racism Flourishing"

"Despite Occasional Xenophobic Attacks, Study Says Such Views Decreasing"

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