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Russia: Racism Freely Expressed

Public opinion polls released this week show harsh anti-Chechen feelings among Russians. RFE/RL's correspondent in Moscow, Sophie Lambroschini, reports that although racial intolerance has been an issue for several years, it is now even more acceptable. A taboo has been lifted on voicing racism in Russia.

Moscow, 29 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- People in Russia are feeling freer than ever -- free to express hatred of Chechens, that is. According to recent opinion polls carried out by the Moscow-based institute VTSIOM, almost two-thirds of Russians approve of the expulsion of all Chechens as a measure to prevent further terrorist acts. And three-fourths approve of "military actions against terrorists on Chechen territory" -- which is what the Russian armed forces are calling the bombing of Chechen villages.

Alexei Levinson, a sociologist with VTSIOM, told RFE/RL that these polls are revealing a new form of the traditional Russian xenophobia. He says anti-Caucasian sentiment has largely replaced anti-Semitism. This racism is an expression of a frustrated people searching for a target for their anger.

The Russians' frustration, Levinson says, is anchored in the defeats in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the loss of world power status, and the failure of economic reforms. Blame for these losses is hard to assign. But Caucasians, particularly Chechens are a practical target.

Towards the end of the Soviet period, negative stereotypes of Caucasus peoples were common, and that intolerance has taken a sharp turn for the worse in the past weeks. The tolerant part of society is still the majority, Levinson says. But that majority is keeping silent.

In Levinson's words, "Taboos have been broken. Violent opinions have received a kind of official sanction. Therefore, racist verdicts that were expressed before mainly as a private view can now be voiced without the feeling of violating morality."

The new acceptance of racist language is evident everywhere -- not least on television talk shows, where anchors spew racist remarks. The words "Islamist" and "Chechen" are being used as synonyms for "terrorist."

Russian authorities have also allowed themselves to use provocative language. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin usually gives out politically correct statements, reminding Russians that terrorists have neither a specific religion nor a specific nationality. But last weekend, Putin sounded more like a nationalist running for election. Swearing to catch the terrorists wherever they may be, Putin said if he found them in the toilet, he'd stuff them in the bowl.

Levinson says Russian politicians are trying to gain political points with harsh policies aimed at that part of the population that wants an "iron fist" -- especially an iron fist that is hitting someone else. Already, support for Putin's presidential bid has doubled to 13 percent in just a week.