Monday, July 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Leading Xenophobic Organization Seeks ‘Respectability’

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 13 – The Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), one of Russia’s largest and most active nationalist groups, is taking steps to make itself appear “less dangerous in the eyes of society,” a move that may cost it support among even more radical groups but one that could allow its leaders to play a larger role in increasingly nationalistic official structures.
At a DPNI Congress in Moscow on Saturday, the movement’s leader since its founding in 2002, Aleksandr Belov, who was recently given a suspended sentence for extremist activity, gave up his post and was succeeded not by another individual but by a council of regional officers (
Belov said that the movement, in which he will now be a member of its rank and file, needed to take these steps not only to prevent his own problems with “high-ranking” officials who from decapitating the movement at some time in the future but also to raise the profile and respectability of a movement that he said is often wrongly characterized in the media.
In a report on the meeting entitled “Nationalism with a Human Face,” the Moscow newspaper “Kommersant” today said that Belov is convinced that if he is not the leader of the group, then these officials will be less inclined to move against DPNI and the organization “will be able to much more actively participate in social and political life.”
According to Belov, DPNI has already gone a long way toward becoming “a respectable movement,” a testimony more to the tectonic shifts in Russian popular and government attitudes toward migrants than to the group’s own statements and behavior, a daily dose of which is provided by its openly xenophobic website,
But “Kommersant” does not challenge Belov’s claims that “the delegates of the congress were proper people in suits and ties and not some kind of skinheads who have gotten together to plan to blow up a market.” As a result, the DPNI activist continued, ever more Russians are turning to the movement for assistance, “a tendency that needs to be maintained.”
Founded seven years ago and initially assumed by many observers to be a creation of the Kremlin or the FSB, DPNI quickly gained attention for its proclaimed goal of “the struggle with illegal migration by any legal means,” a slogan that both many of its activists and many ordinary Russians took to be code words for opposition to non-Russians altogether.
That reputation was enhanced not only by DPNI’s call for “Russia for the [ethnic] Russians!” and its organization of the Russian Marches, which every November 4th have attracted large crowds in Moscow and other cities but also by its decision to challenge the Russian government whenever DPNI believed Moscow was not defending Russians.
Not surprisingly, the group attracted a wide variety of people to its banner, and in September 2008, the group split, with radicals demanding an even harder line against non-Russians and ostensibly less radical leaders like Belov arguing that DPNI must transform itself into “a respectable political force.”
The radical group left DPNI and formed a variety of splinter groups, but that was not enough to mollify Russian government anger at Belov whose statements and actions appeared not only to be winning support away from pro-Kremlin groups but also to be attracting more unfavorable attention in the Western media.
As a result, the powers that be launched a case against him, and he was convicted of promoting extremism by his statements and actions and then given a suspended 18 month sentence. Because that suspension could be lifted at any time and thus leave the organization without a leader, Belov said on Saturday, it was important that he be replaced.
But as “Kommersant” points out, “DPNI will not have a leader” but rather will be directed by a national council including representatives of the movement from Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Kirov and Volgograd, all of whom have now been elected to a three year term.
Perhaps equally important, the congress established an honor court that will allow the leadership to deal with internal divisions, something that could make the organization more centrally controlled than in the past and one in which Belov, whatever his formal position, is likely to have a key role.
Whether DPNI will gain or lose more by its attempt at “respectability” remains to be seen, given that xenophobic radicals who took their first steps in this group may now move on to other, still more radical parties and organizations or may decide that they can do better for what they believe in by supporting the increasingly xenophobic line of already more powerful parties.

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