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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Racism Seen Threatening Russian Democracy

Washington, 29 September 1999 (RFE/RL) - A senior Russian parliamentarian has suggested that the response of Moscow officials to recent bombings there has had the effect of fanning racism among part of the Russian population.

Konstantin Titov, the governor of Samara region and a member of the Federation Council, said on Monday that "the most frightening thing" about what many are calling the Chechen crisis is not the prospect of more violence but rather the "inflamation" of nationalist passions.

He was particularly criticial of the policies adopted by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov whose militia, Titov said, is checking people out not because of their actions but rather because of "the color of face, the shade of eyes, and the color of hair."

Such actions by officials, the experience of other countries suggests, are especially dangerous because they have the effect of appearing to give sanction to understandable if ugly attitudes among the population. And that pattern often has the effect of pushing governments to behave even worse.

Over the last month, many Russians have followed their government in blaming the Chechens or the North Caucasians for the recent bombings, even though, as Titov points out, "it has not been shown" that any of those actions were in fact the work of "Chechen terrorists."

Many Russians have been willing to support actions that appear to many to violate the Russian constitution and international human rights conventions in the name of fighting terrorist violence. And some Russian political figures have played to racist sentiments by taking actions that imply that those who look different or come from other regions are a threat to the integrity of Russia or to law and order in that country.

Not surprisingly, senior Russian officials have either denied that they are doing anything wrong or tried to shift the blame to other countries. On Monday, for example, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the UN Human Rights Commission that the flow of illegal migrants from other former Soviet republics had forced Moscow's hand.

Moscow's latest actions have some deep roots. On October 5, 1993, and in the wake of the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament, Luzhkov issued a directive calling for the expulsion from the city of Moscow of "persons of Caucasian nationality."

At that time, human rights activists in Russia and abroad sharply criticized this decree because it violated universal principles of human rights and because its wording was reminiscent of Stalin's attacks on "persons of Jewish nationality."

But many in the Russian political establishment and most Western governments avoided any sharp criticism of Luzhkov's decree and its implementation, fearing that any comments might undermine popular support for Yeltsin.

As a result, Russian officials have continued to implement the decree -- admittedly in a sporadic manner -- over the last six years and now apparently feel confident that they can use it now to gain support at home and do so with relative impunity abroad.

Now, the consequences of that pattern of criticism and silence are becoming ever more obvious. Once again, human rights activists in Russia and abroad are warning as is Governor Titov about the implications of such actions for democracy and freedom in that country.

And once again, most Western governments appear to have concluded that any public criticism of Moscow's actions would either be counterproductive or would somehow undercut the fight against terrorism that they support.

Governor Titov's comments this week highlight the dangers of such actions and of acquiescence in them, but they also call attention to the more hopeful fact that there are many people in Russia as well as elsewhere who both fear and oppose the rise of racism.