Anti-racist activists finally have a reason to mildly celebrate. Today, Russian xenophobe Aleksandr Belov was sentenced to six months in a penal colony for violating Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Inciting hate and enmity as well as the debasement of human dignity”). The case stems from the Russian March in fall 2007 where Belov goaded protesters “to chant anti-Semitic and anti-government slogans.”
People were wondering whether Belov would serve any time at all. The authorities were apparently afraid that jail time would turn Belov into a martyr.
Belov’s sentencing also led to his resignation as leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), Russia’s largest ultranationalist movement. According to Belov, he was forced to resign because if he was convicted while serving as DPNI’s leader, the organization would have been banned as extremist. “I do not want to let my brothers-in-arms down. I’m sure that they will never denounce me. That is the reason for my resignation.” he said. At the moment, the DPNI is being led by a seven member “National Council.”
Belov might have squeezed through a legal loophole, but there is no mistaking the fact that DPNI is extremist by all Russian legal definitions. They are certainly no more extremist than say the National Bolshevik Party. Yet even the mention of the latter in print can lead to a criminal inquiry as the editor of Vyatka osobaya gazeta is discovering. According to Kommersant, Nikolai Golikov, Vyatka‘s editor, is accused of “distributing” Natsbol literature because he used it in an item about their anti-crisis leaflets posted on banks in Kirovo-Chepetsk.
However, DPNI seems to possess no similar stigma. Perhaps this is because, unlike Limonov, Belov’s views toward immigrants are widely accepted among Russians. Or as Shaun Walker explained in a recent article on Belov:
According to Belov, an Orthodox Christian who is fasting for Russian Lent and fingers a set of prayer beads throughout the interview, the Russian authorities are out of touch with what the average person on the streets wants, and this is what makes groups like his popular. “The last time that Medvedev actually went out onto the streets and met people was probably about 30 years ago; he doesn’t understand what ordinary Russian people want,” he said. “A normal society should have a high level of civil activity, but in the period of Vladimir Putin’s rule, everything was done to get rid of civil society and revive some aspects of Soviet totalitarianism. The elites are corrupt, and not working in the country’s best interests.”
Indeed, one of the more surreal aspects of talking to someone like Belov is that despite the fact that he is a neo-fascist with a racialist ideology, much of what he says could easily come from the lips of Garry Kasparov, the Armenian-Jewish liberal leader who stands for just about everything that the nationalists despise.
But when talk moves on from what is wrong with the current Russian authorities to what should be done about it, the divergence in opinions becomes obvious. Belov doesn’t want Moscow to be a place where there are “ghettos:” places where “a white man goes and doesn’t feel at home.”
Given Russian unemployment levels, he claims, there is no need for unskilled immigrants to come to Russia; they should only be allowed in when they can demonstrate a clear skill that is not available among the local population. He also claims, using the traditional arguments of the far right, that immigrants are responsible for social problems in Russia: “Illegal immigrants sell weapons, drugs and create petty crime,” he said. “If we introduced a visa regime with the former Soviet republics, 95 percent of illegal immigration would be dealt with overnight. We have an absurd situation where people come legally but work illegally.”
Another part of the opposition to migrants stems from classic racialist arguments that haven’t been much in favour anywhere since the 1930s, and rank races according to their level of development. “Take Azerbaijan,” said [Viktor] Yakushev [DPNI’s chief ideologist], referring to a country from which hundreds of thousands of migrants come to Russia every year. “There is a different level of consciousness and knowledge. The society is still at the stage of feudalism; they don’t understand European civilization.”
“Different races have different cultural levels,” Yakushev continued, warming to the theme. “Just look at the state of BMW cars in the past few years—as more and more Turks work at the BMW plants in Germany, the quality has gotten lower and lower. Even though putting the cars together is relatively simple, the Turks don’t have the skill or cultural level to be able to do it properly.” (If this is, indeed, the way in which races are to be ranked, then it doesn’t bode too well for the Russians, I thought).
Belov may think that Medvedev and Putin are out of touch, but Yuri Roslyak, Moscow’s deputy mayor isn’t. Speaking on TVC last Tuesday, he called for a toughening of the city’s policy toward unemployed migrants. “If a migrant loses his job and stays in Moscow unemployed, he should be deported,” he said.
Russian are fertile for anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrants are an easy target in bad economic times. And with unemployment hitting 7.5 million, or about 10 percent nationally, one shouldn’t also be surprised if anti-immigrant racism rises. Especially if it does among unemployed youth. About a third of unemployed Russians are between the ages of 15 to 29, many of which have little work experience.
The threat of rising extremism certainly isn’t lost on the Kremlin. According to Vedomosti, the government is thinking of creating a speacial commission under the President’s office to combat extermism. The commission would coordinate the MVD, FSB, educational institutions and social organizations in a united effort to fight “extremism.” Of course, the mention of the E-word immediately raises the question of definition. Extremism certainly applies to fascists and other neo-Nazis, as the Belov case shows. But “extremism” is an elastic concept in Russia, and it is easily wielded against opposition political groups, ranging from Memorial to the National Bolsheviks.
Or in the words of Oleg Orlov from Memorial:
Everything depends on how this commission will concretely function and who will be on it. I think that it could be profitable if not only representatives of security organizations and national Diasporas are on it, but also human rights activists because the struggle against extremism is now acquiring an ambiguous character. The problems of extremism are used to expand the understanding of ‘extremism.’
Despite Orlov’s reasoned trepidation, the authorities aren’t blind to the growing Russian Right. At the conference in Yekaterinburg where the commission was announced, the Prosecutor-General reported that there around about 200 extremist groups in Russia with a following of around 10,000. The majority of them are under 25 years old. The most influential are nationalist and neo-Nazi groups like Army of the People’s Will, the National Socialist Society, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, the Slavic Union, and the Northern Brotherhood.
Thankfully, with Belov’s sentencing one more fascist is off the street. At least for a little while.