Russia Struggles to Contain Hate Crimes 5, 2004
By Sergei Blagov

Moscow -- A series of violent attacks and incidents with an apparent racist motive has added to Russia's reputation as a country where xenophobia is unchecked and on the rise.

Last week, Siberia's oldest synagogue was destroyed in a fire. Authorities investigating the fire at the 125-year-old Irkutsk synagogue and adjoining community center have so far ruled out arson, but the incident has contributed to concerns about anti-Semitic sentiment. Around 10,000 of Irkutsk's 675,000 people are Jewish.

Earlier in July, vandals painted swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on the walls of a Jewish community center in Russia's internal republic of Mari-El. The building had been targeted before.

The most serious recent incident occurred last June, when a prominent expert on Russian minorities issues, Nikolai Girenko, was shot dead in his St. Petersburg home.

Police suspect neo-Nazis were behind the killing.

Girenko, 64, had been an advisor in 15 top-profile court cases which saw extremists convicted. In the last such case before his death, he was a witness in the trial of a neo-Nazi group called Schultz-88 (88 is an international "skinhead" code for Heil Hitler, H being the eighth letter of the alphabet).

Before the shooting, an obscure group, Russian Republic, posted on an Internet website a "verdict" issued by its self-styled government, sentencing Girenko to death. It called him "an enemy of the Russian people" who was guilty of helping to imprison "patriots."

St. Petersburg prosecutors said they were investigating the web site, and vowed to solve the murder, assigning 120 investigators and turning the case over to a newly-created department specializing in hate crimes.

At the same time, officials have not ruled out the possibility that he was the victim of a random crime or hooliganism. No arrests have yet been made.

The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) has appealed to the authorities to take seriously the murder in particular, and "extremist activity and xenophobic incidents in general."

According to the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, between 2002 and 2004 the number of skinheads in Russia has risen from 30,000 to 50,000. The office predicts that number could double in the next two years.

St. Petersburg has become a focus of hate crimes, prompting the Novye Izvestia daily to ask in a commentary whether the city was "the cradle of Russian Nazism." Racially-motivated murders there have included those of a nine-year-old Tajik girl last February and a six-year-old Roma girl almost a year ago.

However, Russia's smaller urban centers face similar problems.

Voronezh in Central Russia is known as a center for skinhead activity. An African medical student was killed there last February, and in recent months human rights activists in the city have complained about attacks and harassment by extremists.

Despite repeated official pledges to crack down, Russia is struggling to contain racial violence. Many non-Russian migrants from former Soviet states do not feel safe, having fallen prey to violent incidents.

Some attacks also have an economically motivation. Many market stalls in Moscow and other centers are run by traders from neighboring states such as Azerbaijan and Georgia and they are often targeted for attack.

Victims often complain that some police officers are themselves racist and that random document checks, detentions and even beatings of migrants are commonplace.

Authorities point out, however, that measures like document checks are needed amid the recent increase in terrorist attacks in Russia.

The Russian government has been working on an education program aimed at fostering tolerance among its citizens and in the police force. However, last June the government decided to discontinue its $860,000-a-year "Tolerance" from next year.

Russia's Constitution and laws forbid statements and actions that "incite ethnic and religious strife," but few have been punished for making such remarks.

Some perpetrators of racial or religiously motivated violence have, on the other hand, been punished. Last month a Moscow court sentenced five skinheads aged between 17 and 22 to prison terms ranging from nine to 14 years. They were found guilty of involvement in the beating to death of an ethnic Azeri and an Armenian in December 2003.

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