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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- An Outrage In Ryazan

Washington, 25 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S.-based human rights organization reports that a group of toughs broke up a Jewish Sunday school last week in the central Russian city of Ryazan and intimidated a local official into denying that city's Jewish community any further use of school facilities there.

The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ), which has a U.S. government grant to monitor human rights issues in Russia's regions, released two reports detailing these events.

The UCSJ says that 15 men armed with metal chains burst into the Jewish Sunday school on September 17, smashed windows and furniture, and shouted fascist slogans and death threats at the 25 Jewish children and teachers studying there. The children and their teachers fled and thus avoided injury.

But the next day, the UCSJ reports, two neo-Nazis attacked the local school director, beating her on the legs and demanding to know why she "deals with Jews." She then told the city's Jewish community that she would no longer rent it a room for Sunday classes because she fears for her life. The UCSJ adds that local police are investigating both incidents but so far no arrests have been made.

Andrey Blinushov, a Ryazan human rights activist, told UCSJ that "we feel shame and hurt on behalf of our town. Once again, as it was 50 years ago, fascist scum, having taken up arms, have let loose a pogrom."

Moreover, he said, some media outlets there have "inflated the themes of 'the uniqueness of the Russian people,' 'zionist violence' and similar topics," and others have even issued calls for "violent actions against members of various ethnic groups."

At the very time these events were taking place in Ryazan, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the opening of a new Jewish community center in Moscow, a widely-covered event that some Jewish leaders there suggested "herald[ed] a new era for religious democracy in Russia."

The events in Ryazan are far from unique. Elsewhere in Russia and in other post-communist countries, including the eastern regions of Germany, extreme nationalist, anti-semitic and even explicitly neo-Nazi groups have emerged and sought to use violence to harass and intimidate those whom they have identified as "enemies" of their own people.

Most senior officials in these countries have denounced such groups, with Russian leaders like Boris Yeltsin and now Vladimir Putin condemning their activities as incompatible with the building of Russian democracy. But for three reasons, such statements as yet have failed to prevent the growth of these groups. Indeed, some observers have suggested that the gap between what these leaders say and what is happening may help to prepare the ground for further outrages.

First, despite their repeated denunciations of such actions, officials in this region often have been unable to bring those responsible to justice. That failure primarily reflects the weaknesses of the law enforcement agencies in these states. But the lack of successful prosecutions has encouraged some hate groups to conclude that they can act with impunity.

Second, many officials and even more writers in this region have increasingly sounded a nationalist theme, praising the dominant group and condemning its presumed enemies at home and abroad. Few of these statements have been anti-semitic, but they have helped to create a climate in which some are prepared to act against those they believe are to blame for their problems.

And third, officials in some of the countries of this region have demonized non-Jewish minorities, thus opening the way to the demonization of Jews as well. In the Russian Federation, Russian officials have repeatedly attacked "persons of Caucasus nationality" and even sought to expell them from some Russian cities. These actions in turn have led some officials, such as the governors of certain southern Russian regions, to attack Jews as well as North Caucasians.

Concerned about the possibilities of such developments, Russian officials, including Putin, have explicitly warned against holding the entire Chechen nation responsible for the actions of only some of its members or blaming any other people as a whole. And they have criticized those who have gone further and attacked other groups, including Jews.

But unless the authorities move quickly and arrest those responsible for events like those in Ryazan last week, the history of this region suggests that there are likely to be more such outrages in the future, a development that could threaten not only the Jewish community but the prospects for democracy as a whole.