Thursday, July 31, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Can Anyone Stop the Rise of Russia’s Skinheads?

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 31 – Despite high-sounding rhetoric to the contrary, the Russian government has organizationally disarmed itself for the fight with extremist groups like the skinheads and failed to reach out to the business community and the institutions of civil society to combat this “most serious” of challenges to the country, according to a leading human rights activist.
In an article posted online this week, Natalya Rykova, the executive director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, not only provides new details on the threat extremist Russian nationalist groups pose but also discusses how the Russian state and society are failing to combat them (
Like almost all information about the number of extremists and their activities is highly problematic. On the one hand, many hate crimes are never reported or are classified by the authorities as something else, a pattern that forces to use expressions like “at least” or “not less than.”
And on the other, supporters and opponents of such tendencies have political reasons to exaggerate or minimize the problem, either because they want to attract attention by providing a large number that may or may not be true but cannot in any case be trusted or because they want to suggest that these are truly marginal groups with little or no popular support.
One example of such a figure is supposed existence of 70,000 skinheads in the Russian Federation today. Not only is there no precise definition of who is a skinhead and who is not, but there is no agreement on what sources should be used to determine the number. Consequently, there may be far more or far less that this widely cited number.
But while admitting these limitations, Rykova and her organization do provide some numbers that are both more trustworthy and indicative of a rise in the number and influence of Russian extremist groups. In the first six months of 2008, she notes, there were “no fewer” than 170 hate crimes, as a result of which at least 72 people were killed and 190 wounded.
According to her report, Moscow and Moscow oblast led in terms of the number of victims, followed by St. Petersburg, Sverdlovsk oblast, Omsk, and Ulyanovsk oblast. In terms of the nationality of the victims of such attacks, Uzbeks were the most victimized, followed by Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Azerbaijanis and Russians.
But significantly for any assessment of what is taking place, she writes, “the nationality of not fewer than 84 of those killed or wounded at the present time cannot be precisely established” – although she says that skinhead attacks on other groups increasingly result in deaths and have spread to “all regions of Russia.”
Such attacks are leading non-Russians to live together and even to form self-defense groups, steps that may help in some cases but that in others may actually make the problem worse, by attracting greater but unwanted attention from skinhead groups or by ensuring that ay clashes will be more violent and lethal, not less.
Polls show that many Russians believe the problem of hate crimes can be solved either by restricting immigration or by toughening law enforcement, but both views are at a minimum incomplete, Rykova points out. Any cut in the number of migrants will have harm the economy and that in turn will lead to an increase in the number of extremists.
And toughened enforcement of existing laws, something she suggests is taking place, may not work as intended with many judges and juries unwilling to convict and those that do bring back guilty verdicts often unintentionally creating new martyrs for the extremist causes they represent.
Most Russians, she says, fail to consider the danger that the flood of nationalistic and xenophobic literature presents. At present, there are some 100 openly xenophobic newspapers, and seven publishing houses that specialize in printing extremist materials. And there are thousands of websites, which include among other things lists of “targets” for the nationalists.
Confronted with this challenge, the Russian government has largely failed to do what is necessary to contain it. It “liquidated” a special ministry for nationality affairs. It closed the federal program for promoting tolerance and countering extremism. And it fails to provide sufficient funds and staff to other ministries to deal with the challenge.
But the government’s most serious failing, Rykova continues, is its unwillingness to work together with the business community and the institutions of Russia’s nascent civil society. “Without such coordinated efforts,” she says, “it is impossible to stem the growth of xenophobia and militant nationalism and to conduct an effective struggle against ethnic discrimination.”
To start this process, she calls for the government to “clearly articulate the goals and priorities of ethno-national policy,” to quickly adopt the new version of the country’s Concept Paper on Nationality Policy and to adopt a “Concept Paper on the State’s Migration policy,” all of which will be facilitated by reestablishing a nationalities ministry.
“The struggle with ethnic hatred must become a long-term priority of social policy,” she continues, with a countrywide system of monitoring such violence and the creation of a system for the retraining and thus improving the qualifications of government and municipal officials who work on such issues.
But even such efforts will be “condemned to failure” if the government does not involve the business community and the various institutions of civil society as well as individual Russian citizens. Without that, she says, “the indifference [many of them now display toward skinheads and their actions] will also play into the hands of the nationalists.”

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