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Russia/Ukraine: Analyst Says Racial Violence On The Rise

Graffiti in St. Petersburg reading: 'Death To Black Men' (AFP) Xenophobic violence is escalating in both Russia and Ukraine, according to Nikolai Butkevich, research and advocacy director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Speaking at RFE/RL's Washington office on June 15, Butkevich detailed the increased presence of neo-Nazi groups within Russia and the failure of local political and law enforcement officials to stem the tide. Meanwhile, he said a similar phenomenon is occurring in Ukraine but is getting very little media attention.

WASHINGTON, June 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Butkevich has been following the issue of neo-Nazi violence, anti-Semitism, and racial incidents in the former Soviet Union for the past 10 years. And in that time, he had never observed a situation like the one in Russia last April, which he described as "the worst he has ever seen."

"There were at least seven murders and over a dozen assaults attributed to neo-Nazi groups just in this one month [April]," Butkevich said. "Of course, this is the tip of the iceberg. Many of the victims of these crimes are illegally present in the country so they're not going to report them to the police. Many of them have reasons to fear the police."

Defensive Position

According to Butkevich, members of some diaspora groups targeted by neo-Nazis are trying to organize to defend themselves.

"There are some Tajik organizations, and the Tajik Embassy in Moscow just really over the past couple of years has finally started to make statements," Butkevich said. "This really [was] spurred by Khursheda Sultonova's murder [9-year-old Tajik girl killed in St. Petersburg on February 9, 2004]. It got a lot of publicity back there [in Tajikistan]."

The murder of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg in 2004 spurred the emigre community to take steps to protect itself.

The Armenian emigre community in Russia has also assumed a higher profile.

"Probably the Armenians are being the most active when it comes to this," Butkevich said. "There have been some recent murders of Armenians [in Russia] -- young people -- which received a lot of publicity back home. And they have very friendly relationships with the Russian government and they are trying to use that."

Northern Exposure

But in order for emigre communities to cooperate with the Russian authorities, the latter have to acknowledge that a problem exists. During the lead-up to the Group of Eight summit that is to take place in St. Petersburg in July, officials there have been actively trying to deny that their city is plagued by racial violence.

"It's a city where the local officials have been particularly dishonest in dealing with [ethnic hate crimes]," Butkevich said. "In April, Mikhail Vanichkin, who is the head of the St. Petersburg police, called recent press criticism of his city as a hot spot of racist violence a 'provocation' organized by the media to discredit local authorities. And he claimed that as a result police are feeling pressure to hush up crimes committed by foreigners against the local population."

Still, Butkevich sees some signs of hope in Russia. He notes that law enforcement agencies are doing a better job at combating the problem of ethnic violence and that there has been a rise in arrests over the past four years. Although there has also been an increase in neo-Nazi crimes over the same time period, he suggests that this is sign of improvement, as arrests were previously "rare." In addition, some prosecutors have started to apply hate-crime statutes that they had never before employed.

State Of Ukraine

As for Ukraine, Butkevich feels the situation is worsening rather than improving.

Butkevich notes that law enforcement agencies are doing a better job at combating the problem of ethnic violence and that there has been a rise in arrests over the past four years.

"Neo-Nazi violence in Ukraine is something that gets almost no media attention, which is mostly focused on what happens in Russia," Butkevich said. "But over the past three years it has really gotten very bad. And this is after years of neo-Nazi violence almost being not even a problem in Ukraine."

In Ukraine, where there are fewer Muslims and foreign students than in Russia, Jews are the primary target for neo-Nazi groups. Most of the attacks occur in Eastern Ukraine and in Kyiv.

And the police response has been wholly inadequate, according to Butkevich: "I have to say [that] as many positive things that have happened over the past year -- I'm not denying the progress -- the way that the Ukrainian law enforcement officials have reacted to this problem makes the Russians look good."

MORE: For more coverage of this topic from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian, click here and here and here.

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