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Russian Nationalism: an Interview with the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights

With the Russian right-wing groups increasingly targeting the police and other government officials, Putin’s administration is taking a firmer stand against the nationalist  far right. But is it enough? The interview was conducted by Anna Pivovarchuk.

How would you describe the situation in Russia with regard to far right groups and right-wing violence? Would you say there is a problem, and if yes, how serious?

I think the situation with far right groups is serious, but it is not as bad as it was in the 1990s, when the state turned a blind eye to extremist racial violence. As a journalist, I remember how the then minister of justice Pavel Krasheninnikov refused to prohibit the extremist group Russian National Unity (RNE) because “he lacked powers to do it”. Now RNE’s leader Alexander Barkashov presents no political threat, having been given a two year suspended sentence in 2007 for assaulting a police officer, and RNE’s activities were banned in Moscow and some other regions. The head of another major far right group, “People’s Militia”, Vladimir Kvachkov – better known for his attempt to assassinate Russian ex-deputy prime minister and businessman Anatoly Chubais in 2005 – is currently in detention awaiting trial for attempted armed mutiny. Putin’s regime, sometimes ineffective in a lot of areas, was at least capable of seeing the danger that rightist extremists pose and cracked down on them in 2010-2012.   

Respected human rights groups, such as Alexander Verkhovsky’s Sova, report that the attitude of the authorities to the racist groups has become much tougher in the last two years. One of the reasons is that the racist extremists started targeting police even more often than migrants, their logic being that the “treacherous pro-migrant regime” is the root of all evil, not necessarily the immigrants themselves. So the state is protecting itself. I see the positive side of this: by protecting itself, the regime, willingly or unwillingly, is protecting society.

There is a new problem, however. A number of nationalist extremists, such as Alexander Belov, Vladimir Tor [also known as Vladlen Kralin]and others, appear to have been “officially recognized” or “legitimized” by the west. They and a few other detestable characters popped up in the so-called “Coordination Committee” of the Russian “non-systemic” opposition, supported and lionized by the western press and public opinion. Inside this “Coordination Committee” the “nationalist faction” (its official name) has an established seat quota. I think this is a grave danger: people with extremist, xenophobic views, who advocate shutting Russia’s borders to central Asia and the Caucuses and condone racial violence, get recognition from the United States and the European Union. Please, don’t think I exaggerate: “Stop feeding the Caucuses!” and sealing the border with central Asia are official positions of Alexei Navalny and some other non-systemic “democratic nationalists”.

I don’t find any other explanation for this sudden warming of western politicians to Russian xenophobes except for an ardent desire to damage Putin in any way possible, siding with any movement that is anti-Putin. That would be a bad mistake – not because Putin is so nice, but because his not being nice does not stop some of his opponents from being detestable and despicable. 

Would you describe Russia as a xenophobic country in general? Is there a culture of racism?

There is a lot of xenophobia in Russia, but not more than in any other European country. There is an absence of political correctness in the press. Here the Russian situation is similar to the one in Poland or Ukraine and provides a lot of opportunities for bigots to voice their opinions – and for the western press to quote them, presenting Russians as xenophobes.

But in general Russia is very much like many other European countries – there is a lot of “silent xenophobia” where people frown at “visible” foreigners, especially the poor and illiterate migrants from Muslim countries of the former Soviet Union. There is a lot less violent xenophobia – when people actually act on their racist convictions, attacking foreigners or Russian minorities. And there is a certain amount of discrimination in finding employment and renting apartments for minorities. It is of course more difficult for an Uzbek to rent an apartment in Moscow than an ethnic Russian. But this gap is less significant than the gap between a French national and a migrant from an Arabic country in France, for example. Job discrimination against ethnic Russians in, say, Latvia or Estonia is much greater than job discrimination against foreigners from central Asia in Moscow. Also, it is sometimes easier for western Europeans to find a job in Moscow than for ethnic Russians.

If you could give a generalised description of a Russian neo-Nazi, how would you describe him/herWhat motivates these people and what are the main reasons behind violence?

There are several stages of development of an average Russian neo-Nazi. The first stage is usually that of an “imitator”. Models can range from west European neo-Nazis to local Russian aggressive football fans. The final, most dangerous stage, is that of a “fanatic”, who, like Artur Ryno, takes the responsibility for murders committed by others, in order to ”save” the organization at the price of one’s own freedom. Ryno tried to claim responsibility for 37 murders, but was eventually convicted of 16, plus nine attempted. His second in command, Pavel Skachevsky, was convicted of 19 murders and nine assaults. Both were sentenced to ten years in prison – rather leniently, on the basis that they were under 18 at the time of their crimes. Eduard Chuvashov, the judge presiding over the case, was shot in 2010. Two right-wing nationalists have been arrested on suspicion of his murder in June this year.

The main “engines” behind the neo-Nazi sentiment are multiple. One can cite a “national inferiority complex”, hatred for Putin’s regime, the feeling of being excluded from the big consumerist “party” which television and other mass media advertise so much. These are subjective factors which are very strong and, unfortunately, the modern structure of the media, centered on consumerism and politics, not on individual destinies, adds to the problem instead of solving it. Unemployment, lack of opportunities for the young, the general structure of modern “globalized” market economy, which leaves many young people out of international distribution of labor and without meaningful jobs; these are the objective factors.    

You monitor human rights abuses across the country. What do your findings tell us about the nature of racial and religious violence? Who is being targeted, and has the number of victims or the brutality of attacks increased over the years?

If you look at the statistics, the main targets of extremists are the police officers and other officials. 90 percent of the people killed by Islamist extremists in North Caucuses belong to these groups. In Moscow and other big cities, police are also the main target, closely followed by representatives of ethnic minorities, especially central Asians and representatives of Moslem nations of the Caucuses. Unfortunately, the western media, very attentive to any attacks against journalists or human rights activists (who certainly deserve a lot of attention), is almost completely indifferent to attacks against policemen or state officials. (Probably because such attacks don’t fit the modern western stereotype of a “human rights’ violation” – it has to be violence coming from the state.) The next biggest groups are Russian victims of the so-called “return violence”, when groups of representatives of ethnic minorities attack people whom they – rightly or wrongly – consider to be hostile to them.

What legal frameworks are in place to combat these crimes?

The Russian anti-extremist legislation is highly developed and punishes any sort of racist action or even any public expression of racist views. Unfortunately, this strict legislation is not always enforced. For example, freedom of the press still allows for extremism to find its way into the mainstream media.

What is the reaction from the government and the media to your reports? Do you feel there is enough attention being paid to the situation?

The reaction from the government is now even better than from the media. The government, seriously worried by attacks against police and anti-Putin slogans from racist extremists, is much more active than the media, which usually just savors “frightening” stories about racist violence.

Has your organisation been threatened, or your colleagues? Do you have any difficulties continuing your work?

I personally did not face threats. But my colleagues Alexander Brod and Alexander Verkhovsky did. Their names and addresses were published in the list of “enemies” online. However, they continue to work, to rent offices for their organizations and to meet the public.

What would you say needs to be done to ameliorate the situation? Are there any realistic solutions?

I think Russia and the west (by the west I mean primarily the US and the EU) should stop rejoicing at each other’s failures or, worse, trying to destabilize each other’s governments. Instead, they should concentrate on jointly fighting xenophobia and looking for common solutions for such problematic regions as the impoverished central Asia or the destabilized Middle East. These regions are currently the main sources of instability and the main sources of illegal migration which fuels xenophobia. Russia should imitate the example of the United States, where wise politicians try to make lives for people in Latin America better at home instead of seeing them look for a better life in the United States. Russia needs coherent policy for economic aid to Central Asia; it also needs a more coherent migration policy. The EU and the US should help Russia to aid the Central Asian countries, because the flow of illiterate, impoverished post-Soviet generations from there is not going to be a problem for Russia alone. In a few years, it will be a problem for the EU and in 10 years for the US as well. Working together to alleviate the plight of migrants and to improve their condition at home – this is a realistic solution. Trying to shield oneself from your neighbors’ problems, portraying Russia as a still authoritarian xenophobic state is 1) a lie, 2) bad for Europe and the US and 3) does not provide any real prospect of solving the problem and is thus unrealistic.

The views expressed in this interview are the interviewee's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.

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