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Chicago Tribune: In Russia, a virulent nationalism spreads

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  • David McDuff
    chicagotribune.com Nation/World In Russia, a virulent nationalism spreads http://www.chicagotribune.com By Alex Rodriguez Tribune foreign correspondent
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2007
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      chicagotribune.com >> Nation/World

      In Russia, a virulent nationalism spreads

      http://www.chicagotribune.com

      By Alex Rodriguez
      Tribune foreign correspondent
      Published December 31, 2006

      REUTOV, Russia -- Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now
      it appears it's out on patrol.

      On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers
      wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word "Locals" stormed into
      a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming "Down with
      migrants!"

      They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling
      out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and
      proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as
      young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like
      immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market
      for nearly two hours.

      "They were humiliating us, and I don't know why," said Zoya
      Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia's restive Chechnya province who
      sells cabbage at the market. "They looked for anyone with dark hair
      and dark skin. It was a circus."

      Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991
      collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise,
      nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has
      passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever
      about foreigners' place in society.


      `Protecting' Russian interests


      In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according
      to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks
      ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on
      non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

      Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has
      taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President
      Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia's
      immigration laws, citing the need to "protect the interests of Russian
      producers and the Russian population at large."

      Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin's
      request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them
      from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an
      economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of
      whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

      In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on
      migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000
      people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

      But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential
      election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner
      favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and
      raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by
      Russia's disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism
      has gone mainstream.

      "In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people,
      well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics," said
      Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. "It has become the
      dominating idea in society, and that's a bad sign."

      A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at
      a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for
      "locals." The group takes aim at migrants who "violate our laws and
      traditions," Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

      His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and
      enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov.
      The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members
      descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market
      said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, "Don't
      buy goods from migrants--buy from Russian traders!"

      "The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal," said
      Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. "They keep our farmers,
      Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don't know
      how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical
      documents, and they may have an infection that spreads."

      Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between
      activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. "They're just
      kids, too young to understand anything," said Elena Ivshina, a trader
      and ethnic Russian.

      While Fateyev's group is building steam, Alexander Belov's Movement
      Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

      Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar
      fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the
      northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the
      scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by
      firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting
      scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

      Belov, 30, calls Russia's problem with migrants "a disease that needs
      to be cured right now. I'd even say it's a little too late."


      'Russia for Russians'


      What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the
      majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According
      to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of
      respondents backed the slogan "Russia for Russians." Fifty-two percent
      support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

      Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia's youth, who did not
      grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks
      and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic
      Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has
      strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been
      kick-started by Putin's push for Russians to regain a sense of
      national pride.

      For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to
      nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

      "They've been brought up with these nationalist sentiments," said Ali
      Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of
      the St. Petersburg African Union.

      St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially
      motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college
      students in recent years. "The average Russian feels, `These people
      live here at my expense. I'm poor because of them.' In this way,
      migrants become the enemies," Nassor said.

      A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants.
      Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the
      26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train
      when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked,
      said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

      One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev's head.
      Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two
      of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

      "They yelled, `Russia for Russians,' and `This is a white wagon,'"
      Volinkin said.

      When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off
      and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with
      his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the
      platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed
      Soltonoyev and pressed the car's stop button before the train passed
      into a tunnel.

      The attack fractured Soltonoyev's skull and left him in a coma for
      four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now
      but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

      Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three
      remain in custody.

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