The Putin Government's Responses to Increased Xenophobia

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"There is no rise in mass xenophobic feelings in Russia; the overall level is the same as it was since 2000," stated Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director, SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, Moscow at a 7 January 2008 Kennan Institute lecture cosponsored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. However, the base level of xenophobia was already quite high. According to Verkhovsky, approximately 50 percent of Russian citizens hold prejudiced views towards foreigners and some ethnic groups, collectively referred to as "migrants."

At the same time the level of xenophobic language in Russian mass media and political discourse has risen to alarming levels in this decade. The reinforcing images and messages of xenophobia have had the effect of legitimating hatred within the minds of some individuals, according to Verkhovsky, leading to a rise in hate crimes. The Russian government does not directly promote radical nationalism or xenophobia. "The state does not need to create hatred," Verkhovsky said, although he added that there are indications of cooperative relationships between radical nationalist groups and the police and other state entities.

The Russian government is first and foremost concerned with stability, and xenophobia and hate crimes are not perceived by leaders in the Kremlin as a threat to their stability, argued Verkhovsky. The Russian government instead perceives extremist groups and individuals as targets of co-optation and potential tools for policy. During recent international disputes between Russia and Estonia and Russia and Georgia, the Kremlin-funded youth movement Nashi [Ours] conducted coordinated street protests against the embassies and diplomats of both countries. Another pro-Kremlin youth group, Mestnye [Locals], has been enlisted to cooperate with Russia's Federal Migration Service to find and detain illegal immigrants. "This is a collaboration based on xenophobia," he stated.

Law enforcement and the judiciary do little to combat xenophobia in Russia, according to Verkhovsky. The number of sentences handed down in cases involving hate crimes is very low and declined in 2007 from the previous year, reversing previous trends. Verkhovsky explained that such cases receive low priority within the system and fewer crimes are being classified as hate crimes. "This suggests that the main point of the authorities is to manipulate these forces into state services—that is, don't arrest, but co-opt nationalist movements," he said.

Verkhovsky cautioned that the most dangerous aspect of this strategy is that Russia appears to be signaling acceptance of xenophobia from the highest levels. Following ethnic riots in the small Russian town of Kondopoga, President Putin instituted a decree that went into effect in April 2007 banning foreign workers in urban marketplaces. More serious, suggested Verkhovsky, was that Putin himself used the code words of the radical nationalists when he stated that "we must secure the interests of national business and of the indigenous population of Russia." Everyone in Russia understands this code, he stressed, and "something more serious might happen in the future if such toying with nationalist code words continues."

A decade ago, Verkhovsky said, strident nationalists were in the opposition and on the fringe of society. Their popularity was largely rooted in nostalgia for the Soviet era and for great power status. Today, radical nationalists are aligned with Putin, winked at by law enforcement, strongly grounded in mass xenophobia, and legitimized in the media and political discourse. Radical nationalists benefit from anti-migrant policies and political speech, Verkhovsky said. On the other hand, some political elites are trying to promote their own more moderate and intellectual version of Russian nationalism—an ideology of "Russian civilization," as opposed to the pure ethnic nationalism of national-populist movements.

The rise in the fortunes of radical nationalists is not the only negative side effect of the Russian leadership's pursuit of stability, according to Verkhovsky. The ban on foreign workers in marketplaces immediately resulted in higher prices and less choice for Russian consumers. Moreover, policies targeted against migrants or other groups such as NGOs function as signals to the Russian bureaucracy and security services indicating which organizations and individuals should be selected for harassment or arrest. Another aspect of the current system is the government's misuse of laws ostensibly enacted to combat extremism to stifle political opposition.

There are not many forces within Russian society today that are pushing against the rising acceptability of xenophobia, concluded Verkhovsky. There are a small group of NGOs which are active in the struggle against xenophobia, but their influence is small. He added that local and regional governments cooperate with the Federal Migration Service in setting quotas of permitted migrants that are lower than their labor demands. "Their motives are not clear to me," admitted Verkhovsky. Finally, many businesses, especially in construction, need migrants and other ethnic workers, he observed, "but they prefer to keep their status quasi-illegal, which makes them cheaper."

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