by Sergei Blagov
(IPS) MOSCOW --
repeated official pledges to crack down on extreme ultra-nationalists, violent outbreaks of racism and xenophobia are occuring here with greater frequency -- with a recent spike assumed to be linked to Apr. 20, Adolph Hitler's birthday.
The issue has become a matter of anxiety not only for foreign nationals and students in Russia, but also for the country's top officials.
In a sign of growing concern about ultra-nationalism in Russia, President Vladmir Putin, in his State of the Nation address on Apr. 18, described gangs of extremists as organized crime groups.
He also conceded that the police and other law enforcement agencies do not have sufficient legislative tools to combat skinheads effectively. Putin said that the Russian parliament was due to discuss a bill on combating extremism shortly.
Last week, the embassies of seven former Soviet republics appealed to the Foreign Ministry to alert police and security agencies to rising concerns about skinhead attacks in Moscow. The consuls of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan sent a letter, complaining they had received numerous complaints from citizens of their countries about harassment and attacks by skinheads, particularly on Moscow's subway system and at outdoor markets.
The most recent serious incident of racial violence took place on Apr. 15 when a group of skinheads badly beat an Afghan interpreter in downtown Moscow. Abdul Hakrid, 35, who worked for Russia's Federal Migration Service, died of his injuries the next day. He is survived by his Russian wife and their four children.
Yesterday, the Afghan Embassy sent an official report to the Russian foreign ministry and demanded that the authorities deal with extremist violence.
Africans have also been singled out for vicious attacks by skinheads.
Earlier this month, numerous embassies in Moscow received e-mails vowing attacks on foreigners. The message was seemingly authored by an ultra-nationalist organization, Russian National Unity (RNE), which denied any connection with the threats.
The RNE is a paramilitary group that wears insignia similar to a Nazi swastika. Following marches of members of the neo-Nazi RNE through Moscow three years ago, Mayor Luzhkov promised to crack down on extremism and planned a National Unity gathering in Moscow. Russia's Supreme Court also upheld a lower court ruling that bans RNE gatherings.
Yesterday, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said that Russia's police force is "concerned" about threats and violence by extremist groups and said the law enforcement agencies were equipped to deal with the situation.
Ultra-nationalist groups, modeled on skinhead gangs in the West, have gained influence among the impoverished younger generation in many post Soviet states. On Apr. 14, a gang of teenagers attacked a synagogue in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, shouting "Kill the Jews" and smashing windows.
Violence on the anniversary of Hitler's birthday has become traditional. Last Apr. 21, Russian skinheads destroyed an ethnic Azeri street market. In yet another incident last October some 200 teenagers, armed with metal bars, attacked another outdoor market in Southern Moscow, shouting "Heil Hitler."
In Russia, where the victory against Hitler's Germany is still celebrated as a major national holiday, any respect for the Nazi leader is controversial even within outright racists and extremists.
Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has pledged to crack down on the skinheads and stated that Moscow police is well-prepared. He said the Moscow police has been put on alert and that the law enforcement agencies would protect diplomatic missions and public places including the Moscow metro, railway stations and shopping centers.
According to official estimates, there are up to 20,000 extremists in Moscow alone, either soccer fans, RNE members or skinheads. Notably, the RNE is estimated to have up to 5,000 members in the Russian capital.
The police have often said that they do not keep any statistics on racist attacks and do not consider the attacks a widespread problem. However, many Moscow teenagers have been detained for racist attacks.
On the other hand, racist attacks on foreign students have had a disastrous impact on Russia's education system and the image of the country abroad.
At a conference organized by the Education Ministry earlier this month, representatives of Russian universities announced that they are having to employ security guards and form self-defense teams to protect their 70,000 foreign students from nationalist violence.
According to the officials of Moscow's Peoples' Friendship University, also known as Lumumba University, the university allocates nearly $250,000 a year for hiring private guards. Currently, 200 guards patrol the dormitories and classes where 3,700 foreign students live and study.
For instance, last March about 20 students from Africa, Asia and Latin America studying at Rostov Medical University, Southern Russia, decided to leave the country because of regular attacks and harassment by local racists.
SamYuk Institute in Sakhalin, Russian Far East, also took measures to protect its foreign students and teachers, following warnings from the Japanese Consulate in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk about possible racist violence on Apr. 20 -- Hitler's birthday.
According to the Foreign Students' Association in Russia, in the face of police indifference in some universities, foreign students have decided to create self-defense units which guard their hostels armed with sticks.
According to the Association, more than 100 foreigners, including many students, were assaulted by skinheads in Moscow alone from January to March this year, and four victims died. Since May 2000, nationals of 23 countries were attacked by skinheads in Moscow.
However, some racial attacks are economically motivated. Many market stalls in Moscow are run by traders from the south of Russia and neighboring ex-Soviet states, particularly Azerbaijan. During attacks on Apr. 21, 2001, some 20 Azerbaijanis were wounded.
Russia's Constitution forbids statements that "incite ethnic strife," but few people have been punished for making such remarks. The Russian parliament has passed a law banning Nazi symbols and parties that demonstrate "political extremism."
During the Soviet era the state propaganda insisted that the Soviet people were a happy family of nations. But in the West, Russia is often seen as a racist society due to incidents of anti-Semitism, public support for the war in Chechnya and widespread hostility towards "persons of Caucasian nationality." Public opinion surveys do reveal explicit hostility towards some ethnic groups, notably "blacks."
As Russia enjoys relative political and economic stability, the authorities seem to be sincere in their pledges to crack down on violent ultra-nationalism. However, outbreaks of grassroots racism seemingly remain out of the government control.
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