Vienna, October 7 – After a decline in the first nine months of 2008, the number of Russian skinhead attacks on ethnic minorities increased last month, in part because many non-Russians returned to cities in the Russian Federation after holidays but also in part because of the anti-minority sentiment whipped up during the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Last week, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau released its report for the first three quarters of this year. It found that there had been a decline in the number of attacks on ethnic and religious minorities for the first eight months compared to the same period in 2007, a finding that Russian news outlets celebrated.
But the Moscow Bureau reported that the number of attacks, deaths and wound inflicted, and what it described as “terrorist attacks” on minorities, such as blowing up of a Moscow cafe frequented by minorities or a firebombing of an Orthodox Church in Karelia, had all gone up during the last month of that reporting period (www.antirasizm.ru/news.php?page=1).
During that month, the bureau said, there had been 27 xenophobic attacks which had resulted in 11 deaths and 34 injuries. The most frequently attacked groups were Azesrbaijanis, Daghestanis, Armenians, Uzbeks, Ingush, Tajiks, Chinese, people from the Arab world, Russians and Japanese
The presence of Russians on this list, the bureau’s experts said, “in a majority of cases” reflects not an outbreak of russophobia but rather the involvement of ethnic Russian skinheads who have suffered injuries or deaths when they have attacked members of ethnic or religious minorities.
In an article published in “Gazeta” yesterday, the bureau’s Semen Charniy pointed out that the earlier decline so many Russian outlets have noted was the product of the departure of many non-Russians to their homelands over the summer and that the increase in September followed their return to Russian cities (www.gzt.ru/society/2008/10/05/171716.html).
But Charniy stressed one aspect of the Moscow Bureau’s report that had received less attention earlier. The violence of skinhead attacks on minorities is increasing: “If earlier, most of the cases involved beatings,” he noted, “the now, the main goal [of the skinheads] is not to beat but to kill.”
And President Dmitry Medvedev pointed out that Russian officials “are beginning to encounter [such attacks] in places and for reasons about which [no one] had thought before,” an indication that xenophobic attacks are spreading and being directed at groups beyond those, like “persons of Caucasus nationality” who had been the primary objects of hate crimes earlier.
Charniy did not link the recent decline to Moscow’s stepped up enforcement program – something Medvedev is committed to doing (www.interfax.ru/society/txt.asp?id=37200) – or the upsurge to the nationalist anger toward minorities during and after the Russian military action in Georgia. But both are clearly part of the explanation.
On the one hand, the bureau reported, 19 individuals were convicted of hate crimes. And on the other, anti-immigrant groups, encouraged by anti-Georgian messages in the Russian media, stepped up their activities in August and September against many groups but not Georgians (www.politjournal.ru/index.php?action=Articles&dirid=213&tek=8235&issue=221).
Three things are striking about this report and the reaction it has generated. First, skinheads are becoming more active and violent rather than less across Russia. Second, they are being energized by the government’s own nationalistic propaganda even as Moscow promises and in some cases acts against them.
And third – and this is by far the most important aspect of this situation – Russian skinheads whose passions are inflamed about a particular ethnic or religious minority as a result of media coverage or an actual development may very well strike out at members of other readily identified minorities rather than the one they say they are angry at.
Thus, as German Pastor Niemuller reminded the world 70 years ago, no one can feel comfortable when radical nationalists attack minorities because when the former get away with beating or killing the latter, the members of ever more groups are at risk, however safe they assume themselves to be.