Moscow, 21 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian district court has outlawed the Moscow branch of the ultra-nationalist group Russian National Unity (RNE), saying the organization contravenes federal legislation.
But it is unclear how effective the court decision will be. Reports and commentaries from leading newspapers yesterday say the decision will do little to stop RNE from contributing to rising nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia.
The ruling Monday is significant because it marks the first legal action by the state against the extremist organization. RNE's leader, professed neo-Nazi Aleksandr Barkashev, supports imposing a dictatorship dominated by ethnic Russians.
The group has a network of branches throughout the country and enjoys growing popularity at a moment when economic hardship is deepening and nationalist feelings are on the rise. RNE's membership is unknown but is estimated at 20,000 to 100,000 people.
Charges against the local branch included recruiting minors, distributing a neo-Nazi paper, organizing unauthorized rallies and exceeding laws governing the activities of political groups.
RNE uses symbols and salutes which strongly resemble those of Hitler's Germany, but judges and prosecutors chose to downplay this element in making their case against the organization.
Deputy Moscow Prosecutor Yevgeny Manerkin said the decision was taken to avoid giving a political slant to the ruling.
"We did not insist on the fact that they use symbols of the (Nazi) kind. This is not a reason for liquidation. We tried to prove -- and it is up to the court to decide how effectively we acted -- what is the public and social evaluation of society and what is the effect that these symbols have on it. (Nazi) symbols, banners, black shirts, salutes are in no way a reason in itself. Using this (as a ground for the ruling) would stretch the discussion for a long time and we would never achieve a substantial judgment."
The court proceedings were held on the outskirts of Moscow to avoid widespread and visible protests by RNE members.
Reading the ruling in a room filled with menacing RNE supporters, Judge Marina Golubeva did not specify the charges but said only that the regional branch would be liquidated:
"This court, according to article 203 of the criminal code, decided to liquidate the (Moscow) regional branch of the political movement Russian National Unity. The decision can be appealed within the next 20 days."
Newspaper commentators, writing yesterday, say it's unclear how the ruling will limit RNE's activity.
The daily "Kommersant" newspaper quotes Barkashev as saying the decision "will have no consequences" on RNE. He said that as an all-national organization, the group can carry out activities on the whole territory of the Russian Federation.
The daily "Segodnya" agrees and writes that in the absence of legislation calling for tough measures against fascist propaganda, no one can stop the same branch of RNE from being re-registered under a different name.
Barkashev and other RNE representatives have said they will appeal. One of the first public officials to praise the decision was Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Luzhkov earlier banned RNE members from holding their congress in the capital. That ban then prompted hundreds of members to march through Moscow in January, wearing Nazi-style armbands and black leather jackets.
Political analysts said at the time that Luzhkov, a likely presidential candidate, was eager to show centrist voters that he was opposed to extremism, after ignoring the group for a long time.
The conflict with Luzhkov prompted Barkashev to say the verdict was the result of a "political order" by City Hall.
Moscow journalists seem to agree with the interpretation and wonder how many other regional authorities will follow the example of Moscow and limit the activities of extremists.