Chicago Tribune: In Russia, a virulent nationalism spreads
- chicagotribune.com >> Nation/World
In Russia, a virulent nationalism spreads
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
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
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,'"
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.