MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) –

The murder of the imam of a mosque in Kislovodsk, the slaying of an Indian student, the robbery of a Sudanese citizen in St. Petersburg, attacks on mosques and synagogues in a number of Russian cities on the eve of the main Jewish and Muslim holidays… Are we witnessing another outbreak of xenophobia in Russia, or are these actions deliberate provocations?
Let’s make one thing clear from the start – the Prosecutor’s Office has instituted criminal proceedings in all these cases under different sections of the penal code. In the case of the imam’s murder, legal action is being taken under three items of the criminal code of the Russian Federation – manslaughter, illegal bearing and storage of arms, and resistance to the police. The main version of the story holds that the imam was murdered for personal reasons. The investigation has just started, and it is too early to make any statements. Nevertheless, the Council of Muftis of Russia has qualified this tragedy as a provocation against Muslims.
“What happened in Kislovodsk in the late hours of September 25 – the cruel murder of the imam at the threshold of his own house – is a link in a chain of recent tragedies: attempts on the life and murder of Muslim clerics in Dagestan and Chechnya, attacks on mosques and clerics in Sergiyev Posad, Yakhroma, and Yaroslavl,” reads the statement of the Council of Muftis.
Xenophobia concerns not only Moslems, but members of other religions, as well as people of different races and nationalities.
Thus, human rights activists are unequivocally describing the attacks on citizens of India and Sudan in St. Petersburg as motivated by ethnic hatred. Deputy Director of the Sova analytical center, Galina Kozhevnikova, links the recent murders to the stepped-up activities of radical and nationalist groups. “This is no surprise – starting from late September we always witness a burst of ethnic hatred,” she said. But this is scant consolation.
The authorities have qualified the events in St. Petersburg as “hooligan-motivated manslaughter” and “robbery”. The attack on a mosque in Yaroslavl was attributed to hooligan motives as well. Human rights activists believe that such a qualification of these crimes makes offenders feel they can get away with them and misleads society, which may decide that the problem of xenophobia is not so serious in Russia as it really is.
This is true, but there are other trends as well. It is no longer easy to deceive the public, and many people are associating these crimes with xenophobia. The problem is not being hushed up. To the contrary, the media are discussing it at length; many political and public figures consider it their duty to express their opinion on this score; and different programs have been suggested to eradicate ethnic hatred. The question is whether all these measures are achieving the desired effect.
The situation is far more complicated than it seems at first sight. Xenophobia conceals many other trends. We have to agree with law-enforcement bodies that an attack on a man of a different skin color does not unequivocally point to racial hatred. It may mean many other things. The victims of assaults are not always innocent, either. Human rights organizations closely follow all such crimes and try not to list criminal shootouts in their ethnic hatred statistics. However, any incidents linked to ethnic motives, directly or otherwise, do not improve the social atmosphere, and quite often it does not matter who is right and who is not.
“Attacks on and murders of foreign students are damaging Russia’s international reputation and its national traditions,” said Vladimir Slutsker, deputy chairman of the United Commission on Nationalities Policy and Relations between the State and Religious Associations of the Russian Federation Council.
Russian society is infected with xenophobia, and to resolve this problem, a whole package of measures will have to be adopted – from educational programs to improvement of migration laws. The authorities will also have to reduce crime and deal with many other social headaches.
For the time being, only law-enforcement and other officials are trying to do something about the problem.
Commenting on the murder of the Indian student, officials from the Prosecutor’s Office in St. Petersburg said that so far the motives behind this crime are not clear, and all explanations are being considered. It is possible that when the motives have been established, the charge will be revised.
There is every reason to believe that this is true. In the middle of September, a precedent was set – a new verdict was passed on Alexander Koptsev, who was convicted of carrying out an attack in the Moscow Synagogue in January 2006.
Last March he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. “The court believes that Koptsev committed the crime because of ethnic and religious motives, but he did not try to fan up hatred,” the Moscow City Court ruled. The verdict also said that national enmity does not exist in Russian society. The lawyers for the victim’s party did not agree with the verdict and appealed it to the Supreme Court. The verdict was overruled, and on September 15 the Moscow City Court found Koptsev guilty of encouraging ethnic strife and attempted murder.
“We wanted the verdict in this case to prevent other crimes based on ethnic and religious hatred,” commented Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar on the new verdict. Hopefully, this precedent will help toughen Russian legislation on xenophobia.
Indicatively, almost simultaneously with the attacks on synagogues in Astrakhan and Khabarovsk, Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika announced the formation in his office of a special department to monitor ethnic relations.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) did not fail to notice the attempts by the authorities to improve the situation in the country. “The decision to establish a special department to counter xenophobia shows that the Russian authorities are aware of possible developments, and attach much importance to the preservation of ethnic peace in Russia. The FJCR hopes that the investigators will focus their attention not only on the doings of hit men but also on the activities of those who inspire them by stirring up hatred towards people of other religions or skin colors,” said the statement by the FJCR’s press service.
Hopefully, these initiatives from above will help achieve the desired effect at the grassroots level of Russian society. Paradoxically, neither the authorities nor the majority of Russians condone ethnic hate crimes, but they are still being committed with surprising frequency. Religious and ethnic communities should play a big role here – they should not give in to provocations and should instead let the authorities do their job. -0-