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Racist Crime in Russia

Stella Rock
24 March 2009

For the last five years a small Moscow-based NGO, the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, has produced an annual report on radical nationalist activity in Russia and the efforts of state and non-state bodies to counteract it. This year they've issued another 24 pages of sober calculation and analysis, opting for the most conservative estimates (minimum number of ‘hate murders' in 2008 -97) and carefully examining the significant, if limited, progress made in combating this activity. Despite the lack of sensationalism and hyperbole, it is a truly disturbing read.

To calculate the number of individuals attacked, acts of vandalism and other extremist activity, SOVA researchers monitor websites (including neo-Nazi and anti-fascist web-forums), and collate data from reports and statements issued by other NGO activists and by law enforcement bodies such as regional prosecutors' offices.

However, they mostly rely on media reports for their figures. Therein lies the rub: the quality of their data relies to a great extent on the efficiency and accuracy of journalists, and the readiness of those bodies dealing with victims and perpetrators to release information to the press. And as the report repeatedly points out, neither the media nor the authorities can be relied upon to convey accurate, comprehensive and timely information about ultra-right activity.

SOVA researchers are well aware of the limitations of their methodology, and consistently alert their readers to the problems. They exclude from their statistics any incident where the ‘hate motive' is not absolutely certain.

Their figures for violent crime are further reduced, as they point out, because they do not include incidents reported in the Caucasus, as they deem any data available from this area to be too unreliable to analyse. Nor do they include violence committed against street homeless, on the grounds that motive is almost impossible to ascertain. Gun crime is also excluded unless the police specifically identify a racist motive. This latter exclusion tacitly acknowledges the risk of counting contract killings committed for business reasons as racist crimes, simply because the victim is from an ethnic minority.

Problems of data collection

The difficulty SOVA faces is not just that of correctly distinguishing a ‘hate crime' from an ‘ordinary' crime. Finding the information at all is the real problem. Like most EU countries,  Russia does not yet have a central mechanism for systematically recording racist incidents.

Victims of racism and religiously-motivated violence (or, more accurately, violence against individuals on grounds of their perceived religious affiliation) are often reluctant to approach authorities they perceive as unsympathetic or even hostile.

Under-reporting is an issue in any country. In Britain, it took the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the 1999 report from the inquiry into how the system could have failed to bring his murderers to justice, to prompt improved reporting and recording methods in the UK. As a result Britain appears to have a far greater problem with racist violence than any other country in the European Community. Currently, international comparisons tell us more about how countries are tackling the problem of racism than the extent of the problem itself. 

Steady increase

SOVA figures over the past five years reveal a steady increase in violent crime, mostly related to neo-Nazi and skinhead activity. In 2004, 264 individuals were attacked, of whom 49 died. In 2006 the figure was 541, resulting in 55 fatalities.  Last year there were 525 victims, of whom 97 died. SOVA's figures tend to adjust slightly over the year as new information becomes available, but the current total number of attacks is slightly lower than last year's (690, of whom 85 died). They suggest several reasons for this lower figure, but not that there might have been fewer attacks. The general trend, they argue, reveals a well-organised, increasingly experienced neo-Nazi network, committing increasingly violent crimes.

SOVA suggests that the lower number of reported attacks and increased level of violence are related, arguing that Russian society - and therefore the media - has grown indifferent to racist and extreme nationalist activity. Incidents are no longer newsworthy unless they are sensational.

As a result, radical nationalists are committing more sensational crimes, and in at least one instance, responding to public statements that crimes are not racist by proving that they are. In response to an announcement by law enforcement officials that the murder of a Chinese man in September 2008 was an ‘ordinary' murder rather than a racist crime, a video was posted on the internet of his death at the hands of skinheads.

The blurring of fantasy violence and real suffering may have been around since human beings could write or even draw, but the mobile phone camera and the internet have ushered in a truly chilling era.

The report also remarks, in a footnote, that on 16 January 2009, an infamous neo-Nazi was found guilty of faking the execution of a person in the name of the ‘Russian Ku-Klux-Klan', specially filmed at the request of an ATV journalist. After the revelation that the internet clip of the brutal execution-style murders of a Tajik and Dagestani man in 2007 was genuine footage, this seems almost inconceivably irresponsible journalism.

The SOVA report continually highlights the failings of the Russian media. There is the self-censorship that results in regional (and sometimes national) media ceasing to report racist or ‘extremist' crime following announcements by local politicians that such crimes have been eradicated. There is the careless or malicious dissemination of inflammatory material.  There is the failure to release accurate and timely reports during the mass disturbances which are now labelled ‘Kondopoga-style' events, in reference to the riots in the Karelian town of Kondopoga in 2006.

The Kondopoga scenario

This latter phenomenon merits its own section of SOVA's report. The ‘Kondopoga scenario' is an opportunity - an ‘ordinary' crime, fight or disturbance involving individuals from an ethnic minority - which nationalists seek to exploit for political purposes. The pattern developed in Kondopoga in 2006 has yet to be replicated with the same degree of success. But the pattern is that nationalist agitators arrive on the scene to escalate the violence and inflame latent tensions. They then ‘help to resolve' these tensions by calling public meetings and demanding sanctions against ‘immigrants'. SOVA's evidence suggests that despite the media's failure to respond appropriately to such ‘provocations', local authorities are now wise to these tactics and better able to deal with them. Karagai local authority (in Perm region) is singled out for particular praise.

The MovementAgainst Illegal Immigration (better known by its Russian acronym, DPNI) has been instrumental in manipulating most of these Kondopoga-type scenarios, and indeed can be credited with transforming the face - and the vocabulary - of Russian racism in recent years. Protesting against the influx of ‘migrants' in the rhetoric of the European far right, the DPNI has gathered an alarming degree of popular support and media airtime, despite its close connections with skinheads and other marginal extreme nationalist groups.

The good news

Perhaps the most encouraging news in the report is that the acrimonious fragmentation the DPNI experienced in 2008 has yet to be resolved. As a result, the ‘Russian march' held annually on November 4 since 2005 reflected the divisions that continue to plague the nationalist movement. In 2008 there were three separate ‘Russian march' events in Moscow, two of which were organised by DPNI splinter groups. In contrast to the first Moscow march,which attracted around 3,000 participants, it seems that less than half that number joined the farcically disorganised Moscow marches in 2008.

More constructive news is to be found in the section on combating radical nationalism. After years - along with many other researchers and NGOs - of lamenting contradictory or inadequate legislation, inept investigations and the dearth of prosecutions, SOVA reports that criminal proceedings against racists are increasing both in quality (with better investigations leading to more convictions) and in quantity. There have even been successful prosecutions of racist law enforcement officials - against one police officer who maintained a neo-Nazi blog and another who colluded in a racist attack.

However, those working within the criminal justice system are, like NGOs working in this field, increasingly finding themselves the target of neo-Nazi intimidation. Judges and prosecutors found themselves included in the latest list of ‘enemies of the Russian people' that was published on the internet in early 2008, along with journalists, members of the Public Chamber and human rights activists. Unusually, personal details such as home addresses were included on the list - a serious enough issue given the 2004 murder of Nikolai Girenko, for example, an academic and expert witness for the criminal justice system in Petersburg who was shot through his own front door.  Threats, including the mailing of photos of a severed head, have followed.

The fact that the extreme right have lost their political lobby is further good news. Not only, the report points out, did ultra right groups fail to win any seats in the December 2007 elections, but most of their former allies lost their seats. With the fracture of the thus-far influential DPNI, and the loss of active nationalist politicians, two major factors for generating and encouraging racism and discriminatory behaviour amongst the ordinary populace - which generally takes a dim view of neo-Nazis and skinhead gangs - are weakened.

Future trends

SOVA identifies another two factors which may take their place, however. Firstly, the appearance of groups of youths from the Caucasus committing violent retaliatory acts is encouraging the public (led by a media which describes these new groups as ‘skinheads from the Caucasus') to perceive nationalist violence as necessary vigilantism.

Secondly, the pro-Kremlin youth groups, most significantlythe Young Guard of United Russia, joined the DPNI's anti-immigrant band wagon in 2008 with a Russia-wide campaign ‘Our money to our people', which effectively demanded that vacancies be offered to Russian citizens in preference to economic migrants from abroad. SOVA argue that the participation of ‘official' groups in such campaigns legitimizes ‘ethnically-coloured anti-migrant moods and discriminatory practice.' Since this sort of protectionism is a growing worldwidetrend in a worsening economic climate, we should probably expect to see more of it. One can only hope that the racist violence so carefully documented by SOVA does not continue to rise alongside it. 

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