Vienna, August 14 – Spurred by overheated and often vicious official commentaries on the events in Georgia and egged on by extremist groups like the openly xenophobic Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), Russians are beginning to attack ethnic Georgians across Russia, a development likely to generate even more extremist Russian nationalism in the future.
Statements by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and even more Russian media commentaries on Georgia have convinced most Russians that Georgians and the Americans are to blame for almost everything that has happened, according to the results of the most recent polls (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/10500.html).
And many Russians are hitting back at some of the one million ethnic Georgians in their midst, encouraged by reports about “Georgian spies” (www.apn.ru/news/article20627.htm) and by DPNI calls for “interning” Georgians now living (www.apn.ru/opinions/article20634.htm) or attacking Georgian neighborhoods (www.lenta.ru/news/2008/08/12/dpni/).
The exact number of these attacks is unknown but likely large and growing. Russian media have not talked a great deal about them, a sad reality that undoubtedly has encouraged some Russians to assume that the authorities are not at all concerned about such attacks and will do little or nothing to protect the Georgian victims or punish any Russian attackers.
But the SOVA Human Rights Center has reported on some of these incidents, including threats in Ulan-Ude (xeno.sova-center.ru/45A29F2/B8AFBF8), the burning of a Georgian café in Moscow (xeno.sova-center.ru/45A29F2/B8AF942); and an attack on a Georgian driver in Chelyabinsk (xeno.sova-center.ru/45A29F2/B8AF7E8).
These reports, as important as they are in human terms, are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem, the growth of ethnic Russian nationalism interested in “putting non-
Russians in their place” and showing the world that Russians won’t be stopped from doing what they think is necessary by anyone, including the international community.
In interviews conducted by Radio Liberty and carried on a variety of Russian sites, two Russian experts on this subject suggested that Russian nationalism, including the most xenophobic and authoritarian forms, will “only grow” in response to what many Russians see as a hostile environment (http://mariuver.wordpress.com/2008/08/13/nacionalizm_v_rossii/).
Mikhail Reshetnikov, the president of the Russian National Federation of Psychoanalysis, said that “radical nationalism” emerges “when there are no common ideas” and when people are trying to invest their lives with meaning. And in that situation, many will try to define themselves by taking action against minorities of one kind or another.
In the slums of many Russian cities, he continued, people feel that “it is necessary to destroy someone” in order to affirm themselves. “Either aliens or ‘blacks’ or ‘yellows’ and so on.” But so far, such actions have not become “massive, Reshetnikov said, although under certain conditions, it is entirely possible that they will.
And Emil Pain, the head of the independent Center for Ethno-political and Regional Research and Russia’s leading specialist on xenophobia, added that “the level of the dissemination of national extremism is directly dependent on the level of the politicization of the population.”
Right now, because of the Georgian war, the degree of politicization is very high, he said, but in the longer term it is difficult to say whether Russia is about to pass into a period of extreme nationalism as the dominant form of public consciousness or whether it can move in a more positive direction toward civic nationalism.
“There is a high probability,” Pain suggested, “that the level of ethnic preoccupation and ethnic consolidation will still continue to grow” both in terms of itself and in response to the growth of ethno-nationalism among other groups, creating the kind of vicious circle Russia avoided in the early 1990s but one that appears to be solidifying now.
And in looking at the current ideological situation in the Russian Federation, he added, it is difficult to see how Russia will be able any time soon to shift public discourse away from xenophobic ideas even if the government seeks to promote a less extravagant and extremist form of national and political identity – something it is not now doing.
Consequently, although Pain does not address this point, Russians are likely to want to strike out against foreign countries as well. In a comment posted online today, one Russian nationalist argued that Russia has no choice but to stand up for itself regardless of what the rules of the international system are or what anyone thinks (www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=1549).
In swaggering language that promises little good, Yuri Prokof’yev writes that “Russia had to show itself and the world that in the case of necessity it would not stop before the application of force for the defense of its citizens and its vital interests.”
“The world must understand,” he continued, that “Russia will never again subordinate itself to anyone else’s diktat: it will firmly defend its positions. And the most important thing [in all this]: the country has [after the Georgian event] risen to a new level of national unity, the unity of power and society.”
“That must be preserved,” Prokof’yev concluded. “And for this only a small thing is needed: consistency in the actions of government leaders including in the immediate protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” the kind of bravura Vladimir Putin and his team may like but that promises far more problems ahead.