PORTRAIT OF A NATIONALIST
April 21 2009
As Unemployment Levels Grow, Russia Has no Place for Migrant Workers
Times of economic hardship have been known to breathe new life into
nationalist and racist sentiments. As more people lose their jobs, both
Russian and migrant, the "Russia for the Russians" slogan is gaining
popularity, not in the least thanks to people like Alexander Belov,
the leader of the Movement against Illegal Immigration. As racial
tensions in the country escalate, the threat of violence spilling
onto the streets becomes ever more real.
Alexander Belov slips into the interview quietly; for Russia’s most
famous racist, he cuts an unassuming figure, and is overshadowed
by the giant, shaven-headed Viktor Yakushev, his "chief ideologist"
who has come along to the central Moscow restaurant.
Belov is fresh from a day in court, where he is currently standing
accused of inciting racial hatred. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be
given a jail sentence, as the last thing that the authorities want is
to turn him into a martyr, but he thinks that the court case is meant
as a warning to him to keep quiet. Late last year he was beaten up
by a group of men, in an attack that he thinks was meant to kill him
and he claims was part of the same campaign against him. In times of
economic crisis, nationalists, who in the past have been considered
a useful force by the authorities, could indeed become a major threat.
"There is no legal form of protest and the authorities are pressuring
people like Belov, who want things to be done non-violently,"
said Yakushev. "This means we will see a rise in street violence
Belov is the leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration,
the DPNI, which is Russia’s biggest nationalist street grouping. Its
critics accuse it of violent methods and a neo-fascist ideology. Belov
denies the former, claiming that the movement is only in favour of
non-violent protests and that by sidelining the DPNI the authorities
only encourage a more organic, violent nationalist movement to
flourish. As for the accusations of neo-fascism, Yakushev cheerfully
calls himself "the leading Russian proponent of National Socialism."
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 Yakushev, 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).
While the racial classifications and nods to Nazism are unlikely to
go down well in Russia, the general feeling that immigrants are a
nuisance and the cause of crime does have widespread sympathy among
the population. More than half of Russians agree with the slogan
"Russia for the Russians," and in times of crisis, with unemployment
likely to rise both among migrants and locals, the stage could be
set for a rise in violence in the coming months.