Thursday, March 20, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Xenophobia in Russia at an All-Time High, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 20 – Xenophobia and hate crimes against members of other ethnic groups, after having declined in Russia between 2009 and 2012, have now risen to unprecedented levels, the result of what many see as the Putin regime’s backing for ethnic Russian pride, according to experts in Moscow.

            In yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Vera Alperovich says that “the outburst of ethnic violence” in Russia “is visible even to the uninterested observer” and that the main victims are migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who suffer both from organized attacks and individual violence (

            Two other trends are especially worrisome, she writes: the growth in the number of attacks by organized groups and increases in the number of attacks against anyone with a dark skin, Jews, ethnic Chinese and Roma (gypsies), the latest confirmation that xenophobia tends to spread from new targets to old ones, especially if officials do not counter it.

            2013 was a record year in terms of the number of attacks against immigrants, she says, and she recounts some of the most notorious cases, including the July violence in Pugachev in Saratov oblast.  What made that clash stand out is that ultra-right groups were not involved; instead, the population appears to have acted more or less spontaneously.

            The local authorities kept the former away from the site of the violence, but what that meant in the event, Alperovich continues, is that the ultra-right groups sought to spark copycat ethnic violence elsewhere. As a result, the efforts of the authorities to prevent things from getting worse had exactly the opposite effect.

            Unfortunately too, she says, the Pugachev case “not only emboldened the nationalists” but led many candidates in last year’s elections to play “’the anti-immigrant card’” and promote the idea that it was necessary to take addition steps to “struggle” against the appearance of “’illegal’” migrants. Few who heard this distinguished between the illegal and the legal ones.

            These campaign slogans were replicated by “changes in the ways the authorities” behaved and those in turn emboldened the ultra-right to adopt more open and aggressive actions against immigrants,” Alperovich says. Raids by Russian nationalists against migrant quarters became a regular feature in Russian cities.

            Participating in this anti-immigrant wave gave the nationalists the opportunity to “strengthen their ties with the police and the power structures.” The latter increasingly often have asked ultra-nationalists to help them in their operations against immigrants, a pattern that limits the likelihood that the police will rein in the radicals.

            That danger was clearly seen in  the October clashes in Moscow’s Biryulevo where the police did much less to contain the radical nationalists than they had done earlier. As a result, what began as simple fighting ended in “open pogroms.”

            Last fall, she says, “the general level of ethnic xenophobia rose to record high levels,” with “anti-immigrant discourse spreading more broadly than ever before,” leading to demands for the imposition of a visa regime for gastarbeiters and even for the expulsion of migrants already in Russia.

            This too encouraged the radical nationalists and allowed them to encourage more radical element to their marches and demonstrations, as was the case during the Russian March last fall. In earlier years, these events had attracted older but more moderate people; this year, they attracted younger and more openly radical and racist ones.

            Summing up, Alperovich says that during 2013, “the achievements of previous years [in the fight against xenophobia] were gradually lost, and the problems [in this year] intensified.” Blame for this lies solely on the regime which has signaled that it will not mount any intense effort against xenophobic elements.

            And consequently, the problem feeds upon itself. The authorities’ increasingly tolerance for or even exploitation of ethnic extremism makes it more acceptable and as it becomes more acceptable, the authorities feel themselves pressed to be even more tolerant of intolerance. 

            Polls show this.  Over the last year, the percentage of residents of the Russian Federation who support the slogan “Russia for the Russians” has risen from 56 percent to 66 percent, and the share of the population who favors expelling immigrants rather than helping them adapt has gone up from 64 percent to 73 percent,  according to the Levada Center.

            As a result, Alperovich concludes, “the social base of ethnic nationalism in the country continues to grow,” a trend which, in the absence of official efforts to counter it, is creating a situation in which “outburst of xenophobic attitudes will occur ever more frequently.”

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