Friday, February 24, 2006

Foreigners live in fear of Russian skinheads

Oliver Bullough:

Russia‘s small Cameroonian community was shocked and saddened, but not surprised, when fellow citizen Kanhem Leon was murdered by racists. They know the danger of violence is ever present.

Simon Samba Samba, the Cameroon Embassy‘s second secretary, says he always advises new arrivals not to walk around on their own and to avoid places where skinheads hunt foreigners.

"When people came here to study in communist times, it was not like this. But now people are poor and drunk. Maybe they are not happy and they attack our lads on the street," he said.

A series of random racist murders, like that of 28-year-old Leon late last year and other foreign students in Moscow and elsewhere, have forced the issue into the headlines.

Last month, a man shouting "Heil Hitler" wounded eight people in a knife attack on a Moscow synagogue, and attacks on immigrants are so common that they rarely make the press.

President Vladimir Putin has responded by calling racism an "infection" and ordered police to take steps to crush it. But experts say its roots are deep in demoralized post-Soviet society and will not be easy to pull out.

The skinheads, they say, are like a mixture of neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans grafted onto the casual racism that the Soviet Union concealed under its communist rhetoric.

"Our ideology is racism above all. We don‘t like Tajiks, Armenians, Jews -- we don‘t like anyone of a different race," said one self-declared skinhead in an interview with Reuters.

The man calls himself Tesak (machete) -- "because I like knives" -- and wears big black boots and a short, padded jacket.

"At the moment in Russia we‘re not very organized, there is no single leader. We just have groups of five or 10 people who go out to kill Armenians, Chinese, Tajiks," he said.

His group Format 18 -- the numbers one and eight represent the initials of Adolf Hitler -- posts videos of its attacks on its Web site. One clip shows a group of young, muscular men in their uniform of jeans and boots beating a Tajik trader in a market before it ends with the slogan of "White Power."

Most Russians strongly disapprove of such assaults, but opinion polls suggest passive racism is widespread.

Foreign visitors to Russia are often shocked by casual racist language and behavior that has long been taboo in their own societies.

Late last year, polling firm Levada Center said 53 percent of 1,600 respondents supported the phrase "Russia for the Russians," while the numbers supporting a limit on immigration were markedly higher than the year before.

Some political groups have flirted with racism, and the Rodina (Motherland) party was barred from Moscow elections last year for a campaign advertisement that said "let‘s clean the city of rubbish" over pictures of immigrants from the Caucasus.

A demonstration organized by the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) in November saw around 5,000 marching under banners of "Russia for the Russians" and "Russia, forwards."

Protests arranged by pro-Western liberals would be lucky to attract a tenth of that number.

"We have lived here for thousands of years, and why should we share what is ours with people who have only just arrived," said DPNI spokesman Alexander Belov.

"White migration has always brought progress, but you can not call what is happening now progress -- millions of immigrants from Tajikistan or China who have never even held electric tools do not bring progress."

There are no precise figures for the level of immigration into Russia. But millions of people from the impoverished ex-Soviet states have moved here in search of work.

Tajiks, Uzbeks, Armenians and Azeris are often highly visible since they work as taxi drivers or in markets.

Many young Africans and Asians come to study in Russian universities, which offer a high-quality education relatively cheaply. Moscow was a major center for students from the developing world during communist years, when the Soviet Union used free education to win friends and influence.

Economists say immigration is necessary to offset the decline in Russia‘s population, which is falling by around 750,000 a year, but experts say there is no sign ethnic Russians are getting any happier about it.

Tesak‘s shaved head and clothes makes him look like an extremist on society‘s fringe, but he is a qualified engineer and not as easily sidelined as drunken soccer hooligans.

"Tesak is the future of the skinhead movement. He is clever and confident, he doesn‘t take drugs or drink. You can only kill him, you can never make him abandon his ideas," said Sergei Belikov, a lawyer who works with skinheads and has written three books on the phenomenon.

"This is becoming a middle class movement ... It has become a national idea when nothing else is left. Teachers have become market traders, doctors have become bums, but they can all say at least they are white and European."

Parliament promises new laws that would, among other things, make Web sites like Tesak‘s illegal. But Cameroon‘s Samba Samba said there was a lack of will to really crack down.

"We do not think the government is doing enough. If someone is killed, the culprit must be found and convicted ... they have still not found (Leon‘s) killers and this is sad. If they wanted to find them, they could do it in two days," he said.

Until more of an effort is made, Belikov said even the precautions Cameroon urges on its citizens are not enough.

"Basically, I would advise Africans and Asians not to come to Russia, there is nothing good for them here," he said.

Living with race hate in Russia


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