MOSCOW (IPS)–For Nigerian Okaro Davidson Chibo, 35, a seemingly harmless ride in the Moscow subway ended up quite ugly. In late January, he was beaten up and seriously injured by four young Muscovites.
The police detained four suspects and indicated the youngsters probably belonged to a group of skinheads with racist, right-wing views.
It was not an isolated incident. A day later, a Chinese man was badly beaten in the subway.
Despite repeated official pledges to crack down on racial violence, Russia is still struggling with the problem.
Migrants from former Soviet states also do not feel safe. Several have fallen prey to violent incidents in recent weeks. According to Moscow police, since the beginning of January at least seven Azeris were murdered in Moscow.
Many racial attacks are economically motivated, according to observers. A large number of market stalls in Moscow and other urban centers throughout Russia are run by traders from neighboring ex-Soviet states, particularly Azerbaijan and Georgia. Traders and migrant workers from these former Soviet nations are often targeted. For instance, during riots in Moscow on April 21, 2001, some 20 Azeris were wounded.
However, racial murders take place not only in Moscow, but also in remote Russian regions. On Jan. 21, two Georgians who worked at a shoemaker shop were shot and killed in Tyumen, western Siberia.
The police have often said that they do not keep any statistics on racist attacks. However, migrants and refugees who come to Russia from former Soviet states in the Caucasus, Central Asia, as well as Asia and Africa, often face abuse.
The issue has become a matter of international concern as the European Commission (EC) announced a grant of about $2 million to fund a project designed to improve inter-ethnic relations, develop tolerance and counter extremism in Russia. The project is to be carried out in two years, the EC office in Moscow said in a recent statement.
The authorities must not ignore cases of ethnic discrimination, Russia’s nationalities minister Vladimir Zorin stated in Moscow on Jan. 20. “We should promote tolerance from nursery schools to major corporations,” he said.
Victims complain that some police officers themselves are racist, and random document checks, detainment and even beatings of migrants are commonplace. However, the authorities argue, a recent increase in terrorist attacks in Moscow has led to police implementing a series of tougher measures, including document checks.
The government is now reportedly working on an education program aimed at fostering tolerance among its citizens and in the police force. Russia’s predominant Orthodox Church is also getting involved in curbing racial violence. For instance, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Alexy II, publicly urged an end to all forms of extremism in Russia. The country’s unity is based in diversity, the patriarch stated in his call for tolerance.
Despite official calls for tolerance, there have been incidents also of religious fanaticism. In January, a family of Jehovah Witnesses was killed in Yandyki village of Astrakhan region, southern Russia. Olga Fedotova, 26, and her grandmother were beaten to death at their home. The attack was believed to be sparked by religious hatred since perpetrators drew crosses inside the victims’ house.
Meanwhile, some perpetrators of racial or religiously motivated violence have been punished. On Jan. 27, a Moscow court sentenced Valery Seregin, 21, to five years in prison for his role in an upheaval in downtown Moscow last summer.
Last June, football fans rioted in Moscow, leaving at least one man dead and 75 injured. Rioters burned and damaged cars, broke windows and attacked Asians and Asian restaurants after the Russian football team was beaten by Japanese players.
Russia’s Constitution and laws forbid even statements–let alone actions–that “incite ethnic and religious strife.” But few have been punished for making such remarks.
In June 2002, the Russian parliament passed a law banning “political extremism.”
The human rights NGO Moscow Helsinki Group has voiced concern, arguing that the Kremlin’s pledges to combat extremism remain unfulfilled. In a report released in late January on the human rights situation in Russia, the group says that anti-extremism legislation, which went into effect last June, has so far failed to stop hate attacks.
Tatyana Lokshina, the group’s head, told reporters in Moscow that last year the number of attacks against foreigners, migrants and minorities was on the rise. She said that the police tended to view such cases of violence as hooliganism and often declined to recognize beatings as hate attacks.
During the Soviet era, the state propaganda insisted that the union was a happy family of nations. But post-Soviet Russia is notable for its hostility towards migrants. Public opinion surveys reveal explicit hostility towards some ethnic groups, notably “Blacks.”
As a result, Russian authorities are at pains to limit the growing numbers of migrants. The head of Russia’s Federal Border Guard Service, Gen. Konstantin Totsky, recently announced that in 2002 his units had prevented some 60,000 migrants from entering Russia illegally.