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The Rising Russian Right

I’m normally not a big fan of the Guardian‘s Luke Harding, but I think he deserves kudos for his latest article, “Putin’s Worst Nightmare.” Harding opens with the chilling and brutal murder of Karen Abramian, who was stabbed 56 times by two skinheads named Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, both 17, as he returned from visiting his parents.

Abramian’s murder was one in the string of 20 murders committed by the racist duo in a nine month period in 2006-2007.  They also racked up about 16 attacks in their stabbing spree. Most importantly, as Harding stresses, the two youths “were proud” of their killings.  After all, they are part of a “holy war” to rid Russia of racial others. “As they saw it,” Harding writes, “Abramian’s violent death was part of a national liberation movement – an ambitious, quasi-mystical struggle to get rid of Russia’s foreigners, in which they played the role of hero-warriors.” And if they mistook a few dark skinned Russians as gastarbeiters then so be it.  This is what happened when the two fell upon S. Azimov in April 2007.  Ryno and Skachevsky stabbed him 56 times, cutting off his ear as a race war relic.  The race war, after all,  is messy business.

To say that racism and ethnic violence is a growing problem in Russia is a no brainer.  The statistics point to a steady rise in deaths at the hands of neo-Nazis and Russian nationalists.  According to SOVA, there were 50 in 2004, 47 in 2005, 64 in 2006, 86 in 2007, and 96 in 2008.  There were 12 murders in January 2009 alone. The fascists are already above their past average. And as Harding narrates there are no shortage of gruesome stories.

True most Russians condemn the use of violence against their racial others. But is also true that racist and anti-immigrant sentiment is mainstream. “More than 50% support the idea that ethnic Russians should have privileges over other ethnic groups,” Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center tells Harding. “More than 50% believe that ethnic minorities should be limited or even expelled from their region.” Skinhead violence therefore is merely the praxis of these views. For a frequent update on these acts, see Moscow Through Brown Eyes.

Experts estimate that there are approximately 50,000 skinheads in Russia.  According to a recent MVD report there are about 302 informal youth groups, of the Left and the Right, “with signs of extremist views and beliefs.”  These attract young people to participate in mass disorder, riots, and the murder of people of other faiths and nationalities for money, but frequently for uncertain purposes and slogans.”

One may hope that Medvedev’s recent comments at the Collegium of the Ministry of Internal Affairs will light a fire under Russian police organs in combating the Russian Right.  After all, he put combating extremism at center stage.  He said, “The specter of extremist threats are various, but they are of one essence: to destabilize the social and political situation in the country.” However, Medvedev’s comments were not simply in regard to the rise of racist attacks.  The real context is the economic crisis. “In the atmosphere of the twofold drop in the labor market for foreign workers there is a possibility of not only the illegal use of workers’ power, but also the aggravation of the crime rate as a whole.  I think that organs of the MVD need to take this issue under its direct control.”  Medvedev’s suggestion?  The creation of a special subdivision within the MVD to fight extremism. But the targets of this subdivision won’t be the Russian right as a whole (though I sure some of them will). According to documents obtained by Gazeta.ru, the MVD will mainly focus on the “participants of various protests,” “the social activists of oppositionists,” “the participants in anti-government actions,” and other disturbances connected to the global financial crisis.

Given recent events–the request that universities expel students who participate in unsanctioned protests, authorities putting pressure on the parents of National Bolshevik members, and now Nashi’s infiltration of opposition youth groups–there little  surprise if police actions against Russian liberals and leftists heats up even more.

For the Russian right, however, while individual cases of violence are prosecuted and uncovered, there seems to be little systematic targeting of their activities by the authorities. Just the opposite it seems.  So much so that Russian nationalists and fascists seem quite comfortable offering their services to the government. In Novgorod, activists of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) have offered their services to the police by forming militias to secure public order. DPNI has also declared that it intends to arm its members with air guns to fight growing crime in connection with the economic crisis.  Attacks against immigrants are often punished lightly, if at all, rarely getting stiff penalties associated with extremist acts.  Instead, their violence is often labeled mere “hooliganism.”

While authorities have met DPNI’s offers with skepticism, if not bewilderment, the real test will be if they sanction the “Russian March” planned for 1 March. DPNI and the Slavic Union plan to commemorate the fallen soldiers of 6th Company, 104th Regiment of the Pskov Airborne Division.  On 1 March 2000, 84 of that Regiment’s 90 soldiers were killed in Argunskii Revine in Chechnya.  Both organizations say that they will refrain from displaying nationalist slogans. They are hardly needed since the nationalist undercurrent of the march is clear.  Dark-skinned enemies without and by extension within killed Russians.  Moscow’s mayor’s office will give its yea or nay to the demonstration sometime this week.

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