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Russia: Using Racism Is A Time-Honored Kremlin Tool

Nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (right) receiving a state decoration from President Putin in the Kremlin in April (epa) PRAGUE, June 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In the last half year, Russia has experienced an explosion of hate crimes. Some observers believe the Kremlin is using the rising tide of xenophobia as a weapon against its political rivals. If so, it's not a new strategy. The KGB often manipulated the threat of fascism and anti-Semitism to compromise political opponents of the Soviet Union.

One of the most memorable cases was the KGB's Gray Wolves operation in the 1960s and 1970s. The goal of the operation was to prevent Baltic emigre and Jewish communities, who supported dissidents in the Soviet Union, from uniting against the Soviet regime. To do so, the KGB, via contacts inside the Baltic communities, disseminated documents related to the deportation of the Baltic population during the occupation of those regions by the Red Army in 1939. The documents came from the archives of the KGB's secret-police predecessor, the NKVD. In the documents, the KGB emphasized the Jewish names among the NKVD officers who took part in the deportations in order to stir up anti-Semitic sentiments.

At the same time, KGB "helpers" within Jewish communities in the West disseminated Nazi documents from archives captured by the Soviet Army that contained the names of Baltic collaborators who had taken part in the Holocaust.

However, along with authentic documents, the KGB also included forged files with the names of Baltic anticommunist activists it wanted to compromise. A KGB officer in charge of the operation reported to his superiors in Moscow that as a result of the "active measures, both Baltic and Jewish communities have significantly reduced their anti-Soviet activities as they are busy with mutual accusations and settling accounts," according to KGB documents in the possession of Western researchers.

Whatever Happened To Pamyat?

Another example was the notorious anti-Semitic group Pamyat, which was led by professional actor and monarchist Dmitry Vasiliev and appeared on the Soviet political scene in the late 1980s. A collection of black-shirted, bearded men, Pamyat was modeled on the pre-revolutionary anti-Semitic Union of Russian People.

Pamyat's activity coincided with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's stalling reforms and low approval rating. In the 1990s, some KGB officers suggested that Pamyat was the brainchild of high-ranking KGB officials. Its purported goal was to show the frightening alternative to socialist reform. Despite its notorious image, Pamyat quietly evaporated from the political scene.

Some observers have noted that the Kremlin today seems to have similar uses for the rising tide of racist attacks. Many reports about racial incidents and hate crimes routinely come from Kremlin-controlled or Kremlin-aligned media. Police often stress the "racial" nature of violent crimes against foreigners, even before any investigation is under way.

The Antifascist Pact

In February, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and 11 other parties signed a so-called antifascist pact. Among the parties that signed on were the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the Union of Rightist Forces, and other political associations that usually support Putin. Yabloko, the Communist Party, and Motherland refused to sign the document saying they "do not want to participate in such a farce," and pointing out that the LDPR is well known for its xenophobic rhetoric.

In March, the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi once again proclaimed itself "antifascist" and labeled its political adversaries as "fascists."

Elections Coming Up

Analyst Ruslan Saidov wrote in in March that the presidential administration wants to play an antifascism card in the 2008 presidential election, just as in previous election cycles it came out against the Communists.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky signs the so-called antifascist pact in Moscow in February (epa)

Saidov wrote that the Kremlin's second goal is to use the "radical threat of nationalism" as a bogeyman to deflect criticism of it by the liberal intelligentsia.

A third goal, according to Saidov, is to depict the Kremlin's political opponents as "racists" and "extremists."

In the last half year, the Kremlin has spoken out against small radical youth groups, such as the National-Bolshevik Party, the nationalist Motherland party, and even, at one point, the liberal Yabloko.

Saidov wrote that initially the authorities wanted to "personify the fascist threat" by focusing on LDPR leader and Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Another goal, which Saidov did not mention in his article, could be to use the rising tide of racism or fascism to improve the Kremlin's image abroad by presenting Putin's administration as the only protection against these threats.

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