Human Rights Groups Warn of Race-Related Attacks in Russia

Earlier this month in St. Petersburg, Russia, a 28-year-old student from Senegal was shot in the back and left to die on the street. Prosecutors say the murder was racially motivated. Human rights groups say around 30 people were killed in attacks like this last year.

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Racism and xenophobia are on the rise in Russia. Earlier this month in St. Petersburg, a 28-year old student from Senegal was shot in the back and left to die on the street. Prosecutors say the murder was racially motivated. Some human rights groups say 30 people were killed in attacks last year, and nearly 400 hundred injured. Some hate monitoring organizations say the real number is considerably higher.

What most victims had in common was the color of their skin. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Most Russians today, believe one of communisms greatest achievements was helping beat the Nazis in World War II. So, some Muscovites were shocked earlier this year to see young men marching in the capital, chanting neo-fascist slogans and giving Nazi salutes.

Power to Russia, they said, and, White Power!

(Soundbite of man speaking Russian through a bullhorn)

FEIFER: One speaker, the leader of an extreme right-wing group, said Russia is under attack from its southern Caucuses mountain region, whose local population is predominately dark-skinned and Muslim.

The demonstrators are part of a growing number of skinheads and other extremists in Russia. Increasing numbers, express their views through violence. Students from Africa and Asia are regularly assaulted, as are residents from the Caucuses region.

Last weekend, television journalist Elkhan Mirzoyev was attacked in Moscow because of the color of his skin. Mirzoyev, who is from Azerbijan, was riding the Metro when a shaved-headed young man drinking beer sat down next to him. He asked Mirzoyev why he was living in Russia, and advised him to leave. Mirzoyev says one of the man's friends then poured beer on his head.

Mr. ELKHAN MIRZOYEV (Russian journalist): (Through translator) I turned toward him and saw he was laughing with the rest of his group. I stood up and hit him. Then I felt a terrible blow on my head. It was a bottle of beer. Then there was another, and another, and the group started beating me.

FEIFER: Mirzoyev escaped with bruises and deep cuts on his head. Human Rights groups say such crimes are spurred by the appearance of extremism in daily public rhetoric. They say politicians are seeking enemies to blame for Russia's problems.

Members of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party are prominent among the accusers. The party was reported to have recently published a list naming 100 top enemies of the Russian people.

Legislator and party member Nikolai Kuryanovich says the list is a good idea.

Mr. NIKOLAI KURYANOVICH (Russian member of the Committee on National Security): (Through translator) It speaks to the fact that the Russian people have been pushed to the limit of despair and are ready to act. And that's what the enemies of the people are afraid of.

FEIFER: Human rights activist Ludmilla Alexeeva is number one on the enemies list. She heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, which recently conducted a study of xenophobia in the Russian media.

Alexeeva says in addition to the political rhetoric, publication of xenophobic commentary in the mainstream press is growing at an alarming rate.

Ms. LUDMILLA ALEXEEVA (chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group): (Through translator) Journalists reflect societies attitudes, but they also help to form societies attitudes. If people read messages of hate in newspapers, or hear them on the radio or television, then they come to believe they're normal and it's all right to say them in public.

FEIFER: Alexeeva also blames the legal system. Law enforcers often refuse to categorize most racist attacks, even though resulting in murder, as hate- crimes. Last month, eight defendants were charged with hooliganism for the stabbing death of a nine-year-old Tajic girl in Saint-Petersburg. The maximum sentence was five and a half years.

Ludmilla Alexeeva.

Ms. ALEXEEVA: (Through translator) That means, either our judges are also infected with xenophobia, or the defendants are protected from harsh sentences from above. And that indicates our political leaders are diseased with xenophobia.

FEIFER: Russian President Vladimir Putin has denounced xenophobia as a virus infecting the country. But his administration's actions appear less decisive.

The Kremlin is widely believed to have been behind the recent creation of the nationalist Motherland Party, as a way to split the country's conservative electorate. But Motherland's unexpected popularity soon began to threaten the Kremlin, which has since made moves to weaken the party.

Kremlin insider Marat Gelman takes credit for Motherland's initial stunning success. But the public relations guru says he split with the Party after far- right extremists began to take it over. Gellman says he recently convinced policymakers in the Kremlin, that xenophobia seriously threatens multi-ethnic Russia's very existence.

A third of the country's regions are nominally controlled by various ethnic groups.

Mr. MARAT GELMAN (Kremlin insider): (Through translator) Xenophobia has become public. There are a large number of nationalist organizations. Politicians are talking about it, and that leads to a reaction from other ethnic groups; Ingush, Yakuts, and others, who will start saying they need to separate from Russia.

FEIFER: Gelman is forming an internationalist group to fight xenophobia, and he has compiled his own list singling out the country's 100 top neo-fascists. Some believe Gelman may still be acting on the Kremlin's orders, this time to take down dangerous nationalist politicians. But human rights defender Ludmilla Alexeeva says the country's leaders are simply too busy holding onto power to be concerned about the consequences of racism and nationalism. She says real action may only come too late after the country starts splitting at its seams.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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