Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Most Dangerous Legacy—An Increasingly Racist Russia

Paul Goble

Baku, March 4 – More than half of all residents of the Russian Federation and thus nearly 70 percent of all ethnic Russians there now support the slogan “Russian for the Russians,” an attitude that President Vladimir Putin has helped to promote and one that allows increasingly violent xenophobic groups to act with a sense of impunity.
In an article in the current issue of Novaya gazeta, journalist Galina Mursaliyeva argues that Putin and those around him, by their own nationalistic statements and willingness to blame non-Russians for crime, have encouraged these attitudes and thus bear responsibility for the crimes that such attitudes make possible.
And she argues that this trend, while not yet irreversible, has developed to the point that it will impose serious constraints on how incoming president Dmitry Medvedev is likely to be able to proceed, whatever his personal feelings about xenophobia and racism may be (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/15/00.html).
To make her case concerning the Russia Putin has helped to create and the dangers that poses for the future, Mursaliyeva points to attacks on non-Russians and the willingness of officials to “blame the victims” by overstating the number of crimes non-Russians have committed and refusing to classify attacks on them as xenophobic.
Most of her points in this regard are common ground about human rights commentaries in recent months, but the “Novaya gazeta” journalist breaks new ground by interviewing three leading Russian social psychologists and pollsters on the way in which the attitudes of Putin and his government have helped promote this culture of violence.
Aleksandr Asmolov, a psychology professor at Moscow State University, told her that as a result of the attitudes the authorities have expressed and thus sanctioned, prejudice has overwhelmed reason and Russia now finds itself in a situation in which those who engage in “lynch law” are turned into heroes.
Because of that, he continued, the country is becoming “a closed society,” one in which tolerance for other groups is viewed not as a public and private virtue but rather as a limitation on the rights of the majority. And the spread of that attitude in recent years, Asmolov suggested, has put the country on “a suicidal path.”
Vyacheslav Sharov, a social psychologist and psychotherapist, supported that view. He told Mursaliyeva that until officials change their public messages, “xenophobes of all kinds will receive from [the current comments] a signal of approval,” a sense that attacking migrants is something that the authorities actually welcome.
Moreover, he continued, the behavior of such xenophobic individuals and groups is one that can be called “fascism” or even “terrorism” because its victims often are not those guilty of any crimes at all but rather innocent bystanders who are only ethnically similar to those the xenophobes blame for their problems.
But the most damning comments about this trend and Putin’s responsibility for it were offered by Lev Gudkov of the Levada Analytic Center. Although arguing that no one index measures all aspects of xenophobia, he said the rapidly growing support for the idea of “Russia for the Russians” as indicative of the problem.
“Before Putin,” the current high level of public backing for that idea simply “did not exist.” At the same time, however, Gudkov carefully noted that Putin and his team had not so much created something out of nothing but rather had made use of “mass prejudices” to generate support for themselves and their policies.
Unfortunately, in playing to the worst in the population rather than the best, he continued, Putin and his command had encouraged many xenophobic Russians to assume that their attitudes were entirely justified. And that in turn has not only intensified these feelings among those who already had them but led more to adopt them as well.
Many officials, he continued, have an interest in ensuring that migrants are kept in a position of fear. Such a situation pays “its own dividends.” And as to officials in the “law enforcement organs,” there, Gudkov said, “the level of xenophobia and hostility [to non-Russians] is stronger and greater than in any other sphere.
All this promotes the notion among Russians that their nation is “always right,” that others are trying to diminish it, and that attacks on representatives of these “others” are thus justified and even backed by the authorities themselves. “They don’t respect us,” Russians say; “we have to show them who is boss.”
Gudkov noted that research shows that “the propaganda of racism” of this kind is increasing, with ever more Russians concluding that “the superiority of the titular nationalism has risen to the status of an official rule of behavior.” This rule is as yet “unwritten,” he continued, but it has been accepted at the highest levels.”
Mursaliyeva concludes with the following observation: “The genie of xenophobia has escaped the bottle” during Putin’s administration, but it might still be controlled if the new president changed the messages he sends to his countrymen about how they should behave.
But if that does not happen, she argues, the future is truly frightening. As anyone who has examined what happens when governments play to the racism of the crowd knows, such regimes quickly find themselves prisoners of the very monster they have allowed to emerge.

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