Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: In Russia Today, It’s Hard to Prove Discrimination But Easy to Be Charged with Extremism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – It is extremely difficult for non-Russians to prove that Russians are discriminating against on an ethnic basis, but it is extremely easy for the Russian authorities to charge one of their number or others with extremism, just one of the maddening asymmetries in Russian life under Vladimir Putin.

            The case of the first was made yesterday by journalist Grigory Naberezhnov on (; the case for the second proposition was made by Vladimir Titov, a commentator for the “Osobaya bukva” portal (

            According to Naberezhnov, Russian “hotels refuse service, employers refuse to hire, beauty parlors refuse to cut hair, and military commissions refuse to allow [non-Russians] to serve in the army.” In each case, these acts of discrimination involve Russian citizens “whose names are not like ‘Slavic’ ones.”

            Typically, he continues, these acts of discrimination in both the private and public sectors are explained by “completely pragmatic reasons.”  But an examination of a number of cases suggests that hostility toward members of other ethnic and religious groups is being manifested in illegal and unconstitutional ways.

            After providing several examples of such discrimination, Naberezhnov talked to experts and rights activists about the situation.  Mikhail Ahshakov, head of the Society for the Defense of Consumer Rights, says that “any offer of goods and services is a public offer, and it must be concluded with any consumer.” But obviously that does not always happen.

            According to some observers, the journalist continues, discrimination against non-Russians reflects everyday xenophobia, a kind of “new racism” which is “connected as a rule not with dislike to particular nations as such but with a total lack of acceptance of their culture.”

            Such discrimination is both unconstitutional and illegal, but “to prove discrimination on the basis of nationality is very complicated,” Naberezhnov says. Written materials or witnesses are generally required, and those are not always easy to acquire or to get the authorities to recognize what they show.

            Moreover, he continues, “discrimination is not always punished by law.  On the one hand, offers to rent an apartment that include statements like ‘we rent to Slavs’ are illegal. On the other, the owner of an apartment can decide on his own to whom he will rent his apartment without explaining his reasons.”

            “Such a manifestation of xenophobia remains within the law. But even here one is not always able to specify that national prejudices are primary.”  Class prejudices or other considerations may be involved, and Russian officials are inclined to look for them rather than assuming that any action is based on ethnic hatred alone.

            The only group which by law has the right to focus on the nationality of a Russian citizen is the police.  In the West, this has led to charges of “racial profiling,” but in the Russian Federation, it is completely legal.  But often, police actions against one or another individual may have more to do with class than with nationality, Naberezhnov says.

            Russian society, according to the article, is “very hierarchical, and ordinary militiamen often are themselves new arrivals to major cities, people with financial and cultural problems” not terribly difficult from the migrants they have to supervise.  Often, what the police do, it continues, is to use “xenophobia and racism” not as an end but “only as a means” for their own ends.

            Meanwhile, in an “Osobaya bukva” article, Titov points out that it is very easy for the authorities to bring charges of extremism against anyone even if they think they are protecting themselves by avoiding any involvement in politics. And he provides numerous examples of the ways the authorities do so, even when they are not interested in protecting the citizenry from discrimination or some other violation of their rights.

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