Extremism, Xenophobia Rising in Russia

Extremism, Xenophobia Rising in Russia
By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press Writer

Associated Press
June 9 2004

Semyon Tokmakov stretches out his hand and points to a thick scar
he got from assaulting a black U.S. Marine six years ago. The attack
cost him 1 1/2 years in jail, but Tokmakov says he has no regrets.

“We are waging a racial holy war,” said Tokmakov, 28, an informal
leader among Moscow’s skinheads, whose violence appears to be rising.

Over the last several years, Russia has become a strikingly hostile
place for all those with African, Asian or so-called Caucasian
features – the dark skin and dark hair typical for the peoples of
the mountainous Caucasus region.

The U.S. Marine was badly beaten in 1998 in a Moscow market, one of
several foreigners targeted in recent years. The last few months have
seen an especially shocking series of brutal racial attacks, such
as the stabbing of a Guinea-Bissau student in the central Russian
city of Voronezh, the killing of an Afghan asylum seeker in Moscow,
and the slaying of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg by
suspected skinheads.

Ethnic minorities in Moscow complain that beatings and insults are
almost a daily occurrence.

“Racially motivated crimes are growing in number and brutality by the
year,” Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights,
told The Associated Press in an interview.

According to a two-year study conducted by Brod’s bureau and a few
other groups, there are about 50,000 skinheads in Russia, with the two
biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, home to about 1,500 each. It
said 20-30 people have died in such attacks annually in the past few
years, and the number of such crimes is growing by 30 percent per year.

“When you kill cockroaches, you don’t feel sorry for them, do you?”
Tokmakov said, when asked whether he felt sorry for the slain Tajik

The growing extremist sentiments are rooted in Russia’s economic
problems, including high unemployment in many regions, and the
collapse of the Soviet Union, which sent hundreds of thousands of
migrants from poorer former Soviet republics to Russia seeking jobs.

“Why have they all come here?” Tokmakov said. “They bring nothing
but drugs and AIDS. Every day they harass and steal our women.”

Ethnic tensions are also fueled by Russia’s nearly decade-long
military conflict in the mostly Muslim province of Chechnya. Since
shortly before the start of the second war in 1999, Moscow and several
southern Russian cities have been shaken by a series of deadly blasts
and suicide bombings authorities blame on Chechen rebels, which have
further intensified xenophobic sentiments.

Political parties and politicians openly played the nationalist card
in the December parliamentary vote, calling for the ouster of migrant
workers and promoting Russia for Russians. Two such parties enjoyed
victory in the election.

Tokmakov said he and his associates had been on the ballot of one of
these parties, the Homeland bloc, but their names were later crossed
out. Party officials have denied that.

“When there are such economic and other hardships, there are usually
two ways of dealing with it – the first is that of contemplating,
the second is looking for an enemy and blaming him for your problems.
Unfortunately Russia has chosen the second path,” Brod said.

Rafael Arkelov, a 47-old Armenian singer who has spent all his life
living in Moscow and for whom Russian is his first language, has
experienced it all.

He was in a grocery store buying a chocolate bar and a bottle of
champagne to visit his friends for a New Year’s celebration when a
man asked him for some change. After Arkelov refused to give him
money, he saw the man approach two youths with shaved heads whom
he identified as skinheads standing nearby and whispered something.
Several minutes later, after Arkelov walked out of the store, he was
jumped from behind.

“They punched me on my eyes, my face, and all of a sudden I couldn’t
see anymore. Then I collapsed to the ground and they started beating
me with their feet,” Arkelov recalled. “If it weren’t for a woman
across the street who screamed ‘What are you doing?’, if it weren’t
for this scream of hers, I think they would have beaten me to death.”

Brod’s study predicted that the number of skinheads could grow to
80,000- 100,000 within the next two years if authorities don’t take
measures to combat xenophobia. Interior Ministry officials have said
they were closely watching 10,000 suspected members of extremist
groups, but all too often racially motivated attacks are dismissed
as hooliganism.

“Racism isn’t unique to Russia, I know it exists in Europe and
America,” Arkelov said. “But unlike Russia, in those countries it is
prosecuted and the state pursues specific policies to combat it.”