Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Russia Becomes More Dangerous for Immigrants --- Racist Attacks On Rise in Cities Despite Crackdown

The Wall Street Journal, 7th April 2008 11:50

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW -- A significant increase in anti-immigrant attacks by neo-Nazi skinheads in Russia has led to a rare police crackdown in Moscow and a warning of vigilante justice by diaspora organizations.

Ultranationalist skinheads killed 41 people in the first three months of this year, a more than 400% increase from the same period last year, according to the Moscow-based Sova center, which monitors such attacks. The victims were nonwhite Russians, dark-skinned immigrants from former Soviet republics, and people from Asia and Africa.

Sova says the number of such racist attacks is increasing, as is the severity -- evolving from simple stabbings to torture and disfigurement.

The Kremlin hasn't been able to control the problem, and some critics say nationalist rhetoric from the government is feeding the problem, even though ultranationalist politicians have been marginalized or operate only under strict Kremlin control.

The leaders of countries that supply Russia with migrant labor took time out of a political and economic summit in February to complain about the violence to President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin promised tough action.

Diaspora groups and migration experts estimate there are as many as 15 million immigrants living in Russia -- out of a population of 142 million -- including a large number of illegal immigrants. Immigrant numbers are growing, according to the United Nations, a trend that Russian officials say is aggravating tensions.

Racism experts and officials are divided on why skinheads have cranked up the violence. One theory is that they are reacting to tougher policing; another that it is the work of infamy-hungry copycats. Killing migrants with a knife has become a skinhead pastime, says Semyon Charny, an expert at the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

The attackers sometimes record their crimes on videos as proof of work done for shadowy neo-Nazi groups that, police believe, commission the killings.

"People are afraid to walk the streets," says Muhammad Egamzod, a spokesman at the embassy of Tajikistan, a country whose citizens have been targeted.

In the past year, police have made a string of arrests, breaking up at least four gangs. In Moscow, where most of Russia's race-related murders occur, police have begun stopping and fingerprinting skinheads in the subway. The crackdown hasn't stopped the killing, though.

Diaspora groups have said immigrants will take the law into their own hands if the police don't control the problem.

Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy head of Sova, says the Internet allows racist killers to become heroes in ultra-right circles whose adherents believe a war is raging to keep Russia ethnically Russian. The killers' "fans" then try to copy and outdo them, she says.

One 18-year-old skinhead arrested last April was hailed on ultra-right Russian Web sites as a "patriot" after a closed-circuit video camera apparently showed him stabbing an Armenian man to death. The skinhead told police he had killed 37 nonwhites, though he later recanted, according to local media reports. In transcripts of his interrogation leaked to local media, the teenager said Moscow needed to be "cleansed." He is awaiting trial.

The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and Sova estimate Russia is home to about 70,000 skinheads -- including neo-Nazis, antifascists, and those who merely dress the part wearing heavy laceup boots, black bomber jackets and buzzcuts.

Sova says about half of these skinheads are informally aligned with groups that promote anti-immigrant violence.

The skinheads are largely located in Russia's urban centers, primarily Moscow, St. Petersburg and Voronezh. At times, they brawl with antifascist skinheads. In Moscow on March 16, neo-Nazi skinheads killed a young antifascist. On the same day, in six attacks in Moscow and Voronezh, three people ended up in intensive care and one victim was permanently disfigured.

Vladimir Pronin, Moscow's police chief, did little to reassure diaspora groups when they met with him in February to complain about the violence. In comments shown on state television, he told them to ensure migrants committed fewer crimes.

In an interview with a Russian paper the same month, Mr. Pronin blamed skinhead violence on a lack of a positive belief system and poor educational opportunities. "Teenagers have nothing to do," he said. "They need an outlet for their aggression."

Ultranationalists complain that Kremlin dominance of the media and politics has left their supporters with little outlet for their frustration. "Legal forums for expressing feelings have become fewer and fewer," says Alexander Belov, head of the ultra-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration, an activist group.

He says recent parliamentary and presidential elections -- where pro-Kremlin parties squeezed out most of their opponents -- left many feeling disenfranchised. "Some youths feel like they have no other way of expressing their feelings."

Dmitry Rogozin, one of the most prominent ultranationist politicians, was forced out of politics by the Kremlin as his party gained in popularity. He was sidelined and named as Russia's ambassador to NATO in January.

Sojun Sadykov, head of Azerbaijani diaspora group Azeross, says many migrants are straining for revenge. "If it continues like this for another two or three months, there will be civil war," he says.