Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow to Use ‘Harsh Measures’ to Stem Ethnic Clashes in Universities

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 3 – Clashes between students of various nationalities have become so frequent and violent that the Russian government has decided to expel those involved and to screen those applying to study in Moscow who come from non-Russian groups inside the Russian Federation or abroad
Such plans are the product of a series of expert meetings over the last several months and reflect the way in which ethnic conflicts are now involving not just street battles between Russian workers and unemployed Gastarbeiters but also clashes by members of more elite groups of both.
But if this expanded use of police power may reduce the amount of violence, it will also likely exacerbate the ethnic feelings of both Russians, who will see this as an indication that the government is on their side, and non-Russians, who will conclude that it is not and either decide not to come to Moscow to study or alternatively to take more radical action.
According to a report in today’s “Izvestiya,” post-secondary schools there will gain broader powers to expel students, and applicants will be screened by a special “filtration” commission the authorities plan to create that will consist of officials from the city government, the interior ministry, and the FSB (www.izvestia.ru/moscow/article3124978/).
Moreover, the paper says, the government plans to ask administrators at the educational institutions to organize special “operational groups of students” who will react quickly to any conflicts that may arise between members of different national groups and take quick action to prevent such clashes from getting out of hand.
The number of non-Russian students in Moscow is large. Most of the 120,000 foreign students in Russia now – and they are mostly from the former Soviet republics, Asia, Africa and Latin America --are in the educational institutions of the capital. In addition, there are tens of thousands of students who are Russian citizens but members of non-Russian nationalities.
The latter group, the paper suggests, are responsible for many of the most serious problems. Mikhail Solomentsev, the head of the city duma’s nationality policy committee, said that “it is no secret” that many of them are sent to Moscow not so much because of their academic achievements and interests but as the result of corruption in their home areas.
As a result, these “students” often are more interested in entertaining themselves than in getting an education. That makes “filtration” of such students essential, he said, and added that the Moscow city government plans to send letters to republic presidents demanding that they take “personal control” over the selection process.
(One of the reasons such students present difficulties, university administrators say, is that under current rules, it is almost impossible to expel them at least during the first year or two of study. The students know that and thus are confident that they can act with impunity in any way they like.)
The city’s interior ministry office says that interethnic clashes, often involving weapons, now are taking place in the Russian capital’s higher schools, “almost every week.” And it said that most of the problems were caused by young people from the Caucasus – “Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Ossetia.”
University officials report they “try to integrate [non-Russian] students into the life of the capital.” There are special psychologists available to provide counseling and guidance, but “foreigners usually do not” make use of their services. And consequently special “integration” course need to be organized and made mandatory for all.
According to Russian officials, one of the major breeding grounds of ethnic clashes are dormitories where students choose to live with others of their own ethnic group, but the students say that they do so because of the difficulties of living in what is often an alien environment and resent those who insist that some sinister political calculation is behind their decision.
But in order to get at the problems they believe the non-Russian students are causing – and it is significant that the paper does not say very much about dealing with the often xenophobic attitudes of ethnic Russian students – the authorities want to organize “student operational groups” that will try to control the situation in the dorms.
Such group, a militia official told the paper will be “a good thing,” but he said that they must not be formed “on ethnic lines” as might happen naturally under the circumstances. Were that to occur, he said flatly, “we will have a new headache,” possibly in the form of even larger and more violent conflicts in the future.

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