Congratulations, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev

Now confront record levels of racist violence in Russia's streets.

Dmitry Medvedev 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Dmitry Medvedev 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A month away from becoming leader of the world's largest country, Russia's president-in-waiting Dmitry Medvedev has a lot on his plate. Eight years after President Vladimir Putin assumed office, Russia has gone from a humiliated economic basket case to an assertive player on the world stage. Behind the boom, however, is an ugly flip side - a record number of hate crimes set nearly every year of Vladimir Putin's presidency. Attacks on non-Russians now occur on a daily basis, with four murders in Moscow just last week. According to Russian law enforcement figures, the number of crimes committed by extremist groups tripled from 2004-2007. The Sova Center, a Russian NGO, announced that 17 people were killed and more than 50 injured as of February 15, a pace that, if maintained, would result in a doubling of the 2007 numbers. Neo-Nazi gangs, who even the government admits have at least 20,000 members (other estimates are higher), are thought to be responsible for most of the violence. Unfortunately, the ideology of the far-Right has moved from the fringe to a level of respectability that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s. Increasingly, ordinary young men with no ties to hate groups take part in the attacks. Defying the stereotype of uneducated, futureless youths from the poor suburbs surrounding Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of these perpetrators are university students with decent job prospects. Polls show that over half the country now supports the neo-Nazi slogan "Russia for the ethnic Russians" and politicians preaching hatred against non-Russian migrants, Jews, and other minority groups routinely win office in national and local parliaments. THERE ARE three main reasons why racist violence has become so common. The humiliation and fear that the chaos of the 1990s inflicted on the Russian populace cannot be over-estimated. The middle class was devastated by ill-conceived economic reforms, worsening a demographic catastrophe. At the same time, millions of migrants from the southern former Soviet republics came to Russia seeking employment. Predominantly dark-skinned and Islamic, migrants strike fear in the hearts of many Russians, especially when they build mosques in communities far from traditionally Muslim areas. Secondly, the executive branch makes the situation worse by pandering to the extremists and their increasingly popular ideas. President Putin's use of racist rhetoric in the wake of the 2006 Kondopoga riots, which targeted migrants from the Caucasus, is the most prominent example of this disturbing new trend. The president used the publicity surrounding the riot to successfully push for a law that bans foreign market traders. During his speech, Putin employed the far-Right's phrase "the native peoples of Russia," a sharp departure from past speeches, which tended to emphasize inter-ethnic tolerance. Shortly afterwards, the Russian government engaged in a witch hunt against ethnic Georgians during which thousands were detained and an unknown number deported, including many who were present in the country legally. Government-controlled media incites fear and hatred against the US, Europe, and whichever former Soviet state (Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia) happens to be the Kremlin's enemy of the month. The paranoid ethic of the KGB suffuses the ruling elite to such an extent that even Medvedev, who has no known secret police past, recently accused foreign NGOs of espionage, and last Friday Moscow's new ambassador to NATO threatened the West with "brute military force" over the Kosovo issue. FINALLY, the perpetrators of hate crimes enjoy a high degree of impunity. In a blatant attempt to "cook the books" and thereby avoid embarrassing their bosses, Russian prosecutors routinely charge neo-Nazis and other extremists with "hooliganism" - a vague, catch-all charge that carries only minor penalties - instead of hate crimes. Last week, a coalition of migrant organizations in Moscow threatened retaliatory violence if the government doesn't crack down on extremist groups, a sign that some victimized groups may soon take the law into their own hands. Mr. Medvedev ought to signal a sharp break with these failed policies by firing law enforcement officials who refuse to take hate groups seriously. Replacing Moscow's chief of police, who earlier this month denied that organized skinhead groups exist in the city, would be a good place to start. Increased cooperation with the NGO community, which recently united in a 30-member "Coalition Against Hate" to combat racism in the former Soviet Union, would be a key step. One thing is clear - allowing Russia to descend into all out ethnic conflict would be a catastrophe for its people, and the world. The writer is Research and Advocacy Director at the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.