Foreigners and ethnic minorities in Russia are facing a barrage of racially motivated violence encouraged by extreme-Right political groups, Russia’s ‘war against terrorism’ and official indifference to racist crime.
She was knifed eleven times while her father was beaten senseless with baseball bats, chains and knuckle-dusters. Nine-year-old Khurshida Sultanova, from Tajikstan, was the latest victim of skinhead violence in Russia. Her eleven-year-old cousin was hospitalised with head wounds. The brutal attack on the streets of St. Petersburg, on 9 February 2004, is the most shocking in a catalogue of violence that has unfolded in Russia’s cities over the last two years.
Anger at light sentences
There is now growing concern at the failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute the skinheads responsible for these crimes or to impose adequate sentences. This month, three skinheads appeared in a St. Petersburg court for the 2002 murder of Mamed Mamedov, an Azeri father of eight, who was set upon while working as a street vendor. Two of the men received sentences of 4 and 7 years while the third was released on the grounds that he had already served enough time.
A video recording of the murder, which the assailants had filmed and the police later seized, showed a gang of 20 to 25 skinheads mounting an armed assault against Mamedov.
What makes the case unusual was the clear evidence of a racial motive – the video film showed that the attack was accompanied by racist slurs. A slogan popular with extreme-Right political groups, ‘Russia for the Russians’, was also chanted. The Mamedov trial was therefore seen by many as a test of the City Hall’s willingness to tackle racist crime. Many hoped that the court would use the case to send out a clear signal that such crimes would not be tolerated. But instead, say critics, the light sentences sent the opposite message. The executive director of the Azeri National and Cultural Community in St. Petersburg was outraged at the sentences and said that they were going to appeal.
Attacks on ethnic minorities in St. Petesburg have increased dramatically over the last two years and at least four murders have been reported. Just days after Kurshida’s murder, a man from the Caucasus was beaten to death in a St. Petersburg railway station. In the same month, a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg was vandalised, with swastikas and graffiti daubed on over fifty graves.
A lawyer at the St. Petersburg office of the Russian Committee of Lawyers in Defence of Human Rights said that the vast majority of crimes against ethnic minorities not only never reach court, but are not even reported to the police. Many of those attacked by skinheads are undocumented migrant workers who are nervous about contacting a police force which will check their status and deport them.
Students in fear
A survey by the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights states that the number of skinheads in Russia has risen to over 35,000 in the past two years. There are 5,500 skinheads in Moscow and 3,000 in St. Petersburg. Skinheads fall into three groupings: Skinlegion, a branch of the German group Blood and Honour and United Brigade 88. In addition to these organised skinheads, many more roam the streets.
Not only are Muslim and Jewish minorities targeted but also students from Asia and Africa. On 21 February 2004, Amaro Antonio Limo, from Guinea-Bissau, was stabbed to death in broad daylight just metres from the Medical Academy where he studied, in Voronezh, 360 miles south of Moscow. Foreign students in the town have documented seven killings and about seventy attacks in the past five years. The police, who do not keep records of racially motivated attacks, say that only two students have been killed, and not in race attacks. They and the university officials usually blame hooliganism, not racism, for the attacks. ‘It could happen to all Russians’, said the assistant rector, ‘foreigners are just more visible’.
The police had denied a racial motivation for Limo’s killing on the grounds that the assailants had hair and were therefore not skinheads. But the students say that those who habitually harass them are not distinguished by lack of hair, but by their aggression and threats to kill. Limo’s death led to a three-day walkout by angry students, drawing national media attention and forcing a meeting with the mayor, regional heads and education leaders.
In Moscow, too, Third World students say they are living in fear. ‘At any hour you must be ready to fight’, says one Cameroonian. Ambassadors from 37 African countries have appealed to the Foreign Ministry for protection for its nationals. Human rights groups have documented widespread harassment which often occurs with the compliance or support of the police.
In November 2003, 42 students died in a suspicious late-night fire at the Russian People’s Friendship University in Moscow. Although the fire was officially described as an accident, most foreign students are convinced it was not. They say that they were receiving bomb threats for weeks before, forcing students onto the cold streets in the middle of the night. The fire killed newly arrived students from Angola, China, Vietnam, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Tahiti. And survivors are highly critical of the college authorities. One student described how he video-taped students banging on the glass for help and how the hands just slipped down the glass, as ‘they were gone’.
Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, has warned that White supremacist skinhead gangs are multiplying, fuelled by nationalist political groups and publications. ‘All this Nazi ideology gives rise to hatred of all non-Russians… many people think skinheads are not bandits but Russian patriots who are fighting for the purity of Russian society’. The Bureau has also claimed that there are close ties between the law enforcement agencies and extreme-Right groups.
Yuri Vdovin, of the human rights group Citizens’ Watch said: ‘The police simply don’t want to deal with the problem. Many share the same views as the thugs. They sympathise.’
At an extreme-Right rally held in front of Moscow’s Gorky Park on 16 February 2004, the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’ was chanted once again. Leaders of the extreme-Right Nationalist Patriotic Party, who organised the demonstration, said that they were protesting against Chechen terrorism. Human rights activists who mounted a counter-demonstration were arrested by riot police.
Anti-Chechen sentiments have been on the rise in Moscow since a bomb exploded on the city’s subway on 6 February 2004, killing 41 commuters. Vladimir Putin was quick to pin the blame on Chechen terrorists and proposed new legislation against ‘illegal immigration’. The police have conducted high-profile swoops of mosques under the pretext of foiling terrorism and are rounding up anyone who looks like they might be from Chechnya.
There have also been reports of gangs conducting ‘revenge attacks’. When the roof of a swimming pool in south Moscow collapsed, on 14 February, groups of skinheads swarmed through the area within hours, beating up members of ethnic minorities.
With Russia’s 20 million Muslims being regarded as the ‘enemy within’ and a growing hostility towards immigrants, Russia’s racism is coming to align itself increasingly with that in the rest of Europe. The Soviet era’s official ideology of ‘paternalist solidarity’ with the Third World has given way, in the new Russia, to xenoracism. And two decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Chechnya have left Russia with a particular fear of the poorer nations to Russia’s south.
Few see any signs of these trends being checked by strong action from Russia’s ‘strong man’, Vladimir Putin.