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Racist Crimes Decreasing In Russia, But Watchdogs Still Wary

Ultranationalists rally in Moscow on National Unity Day, a new state holiday created by the Kremlin to promote patriotism.
Ultranationalists rally in Moscow on National Unity Day, a new state holiday created by the Kremlin to promote patriotism.
At least 54 people have been killed in racially motivated attacks in Russia so far this year. About 300 others were wounded.

The Sova Center, Russia's leading authority on hate crimes and ultranationalist groups, says that Central Asians make up the majority of the victims, with residents of the North and South Caucasus coming in second.

Despite the shockingly high figure, Sova says this year actually represents a dramatic decline in racist killings, the first in seven years.

The Moscow-based nongovernmental organization estimates that 105 people were murdered in racially motivated attacks over the same period last year -- almost twice as many as this year.

Mikhail Tukmachyov, the moderator of "Emergency Situation," a popular television program devoted to crime in Russia, has also noticed a significant decrease in racist violence. "There were many attacks on non-Slavs last year and the year before. This year, fewer cases were reported,” Tukmachyov says. “In my programs, I had a lot less material on attacks by Slav radicals on non-Slavs."

Crime-watchers attribute this decline mainly to last winter's forceful police crackdown on ultranationalist groups.

Rights campaigners have long condemned the government's reluctance to punish racist offenders and warned that the climate of impunity was breeding powerful ultranationalist and neo-Nazi gangs.

Unknown Toll

The real number of victims of racism is probably much higher than Sova's estimate, which only includes crimes with a proven racist motive.

Amnesty International sounded the alarm in a 2006 report saying racist murders in Russia were "out of control."

But according to sociologist Lev Gudkov, the authorities appear to have finally awoken to the danger posed by these gangs.

"The government used to pursue a very ambiguous policy toward them,” Gudkov says. “On the one hand, it was afraid of letting them slip out of their control; on the other hand, it egged them on against foreigners. It stirred up xenophobia and encouraged it through impunity. Now the policy toward them is a lot tougher."

In December 2008, seven teenagers accused of murdering 19 people in racially motivated attacks were given jail terms of up to 20 years each. The group had filmed some of the murders and posted the video clips on the Internet.

A court in September sentenced members of another racist youth gang to long prison terms for a string of attacks on foreigners last year that left a Kyrgyz citizen dead. The gang leader, a 17-year-old girl, was handed an eight-year sentence.

But the verdicts offer little comfort for immigrants and ethnic minorities in Russia, who remain the target of vicious attacks by ultranationalist groups.

There are believed to be as many as 10,000 active skinheads in Moscow, and tens of thousands more scattered throughout the country.

Experts warn that putting the most violent attackers behind bars won't be enough to derail Russia's white-power movement, which has built considerable resilience after years of impunity.

Sova deputy director Galina Kozhevnikova says the fall in racist attacks also signals a shift in tactics.

"Ultra right-wing radicals are shifting from this type of attack to sabotage and terrorism,” Kozhevnikova says. “We see more and more explosions, arsons, fake bombs. The ultra-right wing's goal is now to frighten society and cause maximum harm to the reputation of Russia's political authorities."

Sova reported five acts of vandalism against Jewish and Muslim targets in November, and more than 90 acts of racially motivated vandalism since the beginning of the year, including nine cases of arson.

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