Nickolai Butkevich Testifies Before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus

(May 19, 2006)


Research and Advocacy Director, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union

Before the

Congressional Human Rights Caucus

Rayburn House Office Building, 2255

May 17, 2006

As UCSJ’s director of research and advocacy, and on behalf of UCSJ, its president, Yosef I. Abramowitz and its National Director, Micah H. Naftalin, I am very pleased to be here this afternoon.

I am deeply honored to have been invited to brief the Human Rights Caucasus, whose work is of special importance in the case of the Russian Federation, a country which is backsliding towards authoritarianism, and has a mixed record when it comes to religious liberty and the protection of minority groups from hate crimes and hate groups.

The bulk of my testimony today is based on my organization’s latest report, which focuses exclusively on events from last month (April 2006) in Russia to provide a snapshot of neo-Nazi violence, hate speech by prominent political actors, and how the criminal justice system reacted (or failed to react) to these incidents.

Racist violence, political hate speech, and the explosive growth of the neo-Nazi movement are not just a threat to the physical safety of ethnic and religious minorities in Russia, they also threaten the long-term stability of the country, which is home to more than 100 distinct peoples, including believers from multiple religious traditions.

On April 20, neo-Nazis around the world celebrated the 117th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth. Nowhere was the date marked with more violence than in Russia. In fact, when it comes to racist violence, April 2006 will go on record as the bloodiest month in recent Russian history, with at least seven murders and more than a dozen assaults attributed to neo-Nazi groups. Details on these attacks are available in UCSJ’s report, which I would like to ask be included in the written record of these proceedings.

Since the late 1990s, Russia’s homegrown fascists have spent the days surrounding April 20 stepping up their year-round campaign of violence against dark-skinned ethnic minorities, foreign students (predominantly from developing countries), and Jews. This disgusting annual spectacle is presumably deeply embarrassing to President Vladimir Putin, who has publicly condemned racism and antisemitism. Yet despite the mobilization of thousands of extra police officers in Moscow and other cities every April, Russian authorities seem helpless to stem the tide of violence.

Throughout April 2006, Russian neo-Nazi web sites brazenly called for more violence against minorities to mark Hitler’s birthday and even posted a how-to manual with advice on how to evade arrest afterward. At the same time, neo-Nazis interviewed by foreign correspondents in Krasnoyarsk and Moscow claimed that elements within law enforcement agencies are working to support, rather than suppress, their activities. This unconfirmed claim bolsters a theory popular among many human rights activists and both liberal and Communist politicians, the gist of which is that the Russian government is secretly backing neo-Nazi groups and xenophobic political parties like Motherland and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR in order to build up a “fascist threat” that can be used at the end of President Putin’s term in 2008 to justify emergency measures to continue his rule.

Regardless of whether the government’s inability to stem the growth of the neo-Nazi movement is more a product of generally well-intentioned but dysfunctional government policies, or a dark conspiracy by Kremlin political advisors, it is indisputable that racist violence has become a daily feature of Russian life, not just in big cities in the ethnic Russian heartland, but even in remote towns in Siberia, the far north, and the far east where in the 1990s such groups didn’t even exist.

There are several reasons for this; I’ll just list three here.

One, the economic collapse of the 1990s left many in the Russian middle and lower classes without their savings, their jobs, or their dignity. They, and more importantly for the sake of our discussion here, many of their children, felt abandoned by a government that was dominated by corrupt insiders who became billionaires while their standard of living plummeted. Some of them gave into the temptation offered by demagogic politicians from both the far-right and the Communist Party to blame Jews, migrants from the Caucasus, and the West for these problems. At the time, some Russia-watchers warned of a Weimar scenario, under which this combination of national humiliation and economic collapse could lead to extremist nationalists taking power. It is a testament to the fortitude and wisdom of the Russian people that this nightmare scenario did not come to pass.

Paradoxically, it is in the last few years, at a time when the country is being flooded with oil and gas revenue, that the neo-Nazi movement has really taken off. I haven’t seen anybody come up with a comprehensive explanation for why this is so, but I wouldn’t underestimate the psychological effects of the 1990s economic collapse, which are very much with us today, even as the Russian economy goes into its sixth or seventh year of healthy growth.

The second factor is the demographic collapse. In the 1990s, Russia’s population shrunk by around a million people a year; nowadays it’s still shrinking at a rate of around 600,000-700,000 a year. This is the largest peacetime population shrinkage in recorded history, and much like in wartime, working-age males are being hit particularly hard. They are dying at an astounding rate, thanks to a combination of life-style practices, economic stress, and environmental pollution. The ethnic Russian population is shrinking, while at the same time, traditionally Muslim ethnic groups are growing, thanks to larger family sizes, better lifestyle habits (zero or moderate alcohol consumption, for example), and mass immigration, both legal and illegal. Millions of people from the former Soviet southern republics have moved to Russia since the USSR’s collapse, replacing some of the millions of ethnic Russians who have died prematurely or were never born. As a result, there are mosques being built far away from the traditional Muslim heartland, and some neighborhoods in Moscow and St. Petersburg have become majority non-Russian. Many neo-Nazis cite this as the primary reason for joining the movement, and while most Russians don’t approve of racist violence, a substantial number of voters seem to support the skinheads’ view that this is an invasion by a hostile, alien group of people bent on making Russians a minority in their own country. Finally, there is the closely related factor of the two Chechen wars, and the terrorist acts that have resulted from them. Suspicion of and violence against Chechens throughout the Russian Federation quickly turned to hostility towards other peoples from the Caucasus and to a lesser but still significant degree, towards long-established ethnic minorities like Tuvans, Tatars, etc. This in turn has sparked a few incidents of victimized groups lashing out at ethnic Russians, including some who have nothing to do with neo-Nazi groups (thankfully, such instances are relatively rare, but they do offer a taste of what may come if these trends are allowed to continue).

Russian soldiers and policemen, having taken part in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, return home with almost no attempt to counsel them or otherwise integrate them back into normal society. A cop from Krasnoyarsk could be fighting in Chechnya for a few months’ rotation and soon afterwards be walking the beat back home, interacting with many people who look like those who were shooting at him back in the war zone. It’s not hard to guess how this contributes to racist attitudes within the police forces of many Russian cities.

I mentioned demagogic politicians earlier. Unfortunately, as a result of the last parliamentary elections, there are now more of them than in the national parliament (the State Duma) than at any other time in recent memory. As a result of rising racist sentiment amongst Russian voters and the Kremlin’s political strategies to exploit this, the Duma has become the main bully pulpit for xenophobes to disseminate their hateful views without fear of prosecution (Duma membership confers immunity from criminal prosecution, including for violating Russia’s laws on hate speech).

In the run up to the 2003 parliamentary elections, Kremlin political strategists reportedly created the Motherland (Rodina) bloc—a loose alliance of extreme nationalists and more moderate figures. The Motherland project was aimed at sapping nationalist and leftist votes from the opposition Communist party. Government controlled television aggressively promoted Motherland and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR—another extremist nationalist party with reputed ties to the Kremlin. As a result, only four parties were elected to the State Duma—the Kremlin’s United Russia, the Communists, the LDPR, and Motherland (the two liberal parties in the previous Duma failed to exceed the 5% barrier and were therefore eliminated). All but United Russia are explicitly antisemitic parties, made up of several politicians with long records of antisemitic and racist rhetoric; the three extremist nationalist parties won a combined total of around 1/3 of the party list vote.

The best example of how far some members of the national parliament are willing to go to demonize minorities came in January 2005, when 19 members of the State Duma from Motherland and the Communist party signed an open letter to the Prosecutor General’s office demanding that Jewish groups be banned in Russia. The letter referred to Judaism as a “Satanic” religion and made reference to the medieval Blood Libel (the belief that Jews ritually murder Christian children during Passover and use their blood to bake matzo). Russian Jewish groups—who have long ago grown accustomed to more modern-day antisemitic accusations of controlling the media, the financial system, etc.—reacted with horror to this intellectual descent into the barbarism of the Dark Ages.

Some of the letter’s signatories reacted to the negative publicity by refuting the letter, but several Motherland deputies proudly defended their stance. Since that time, Motherland MPs continue to regularly incite hatred against minorities, particularly Jews. Three such incidents took place last month, the details of which can be found in UCSJ’s report.

Amidst all the bad news, it should be noted that there have been some improvements in the way the Russian government deals with hate crimes. Starting in 2002, the number of arrests of skinheads began to increase. While a cynical observer could be pardoned for linking this increase in arrests to the proliferation of neo-Nazi gangs and their growing willingness to actually kill rather than just beat up their victims, it is also clear that at least some law enforcement officials are beginning to view hate crimes and neo-Nazi groups as a serious threat to public safety. This April, proactive steps by police in Bryansk and Novosibirsk stopped neo-Nazi violence before it could happen. Bryansk police came up with an innovative way to deal with shortcomings in laws dealing with juvenile crime, which the skinheads exploit by getting their younger members to commit most of the violence. Twice last month, police in that city rounded up groups of neo-Nazi youths before they could strike and then summoned their parents to the station, where they were fined for parental negligence. It is unclear how this strategy will play out in the long run, and it has some disturbing civil liberties implications, but after years of denial and indifference by Russian law enforcement officials, all of which allowed the neo-Nazi movement to fester and grow, this kind of outside-the-box thinking is refreshing and inspires some hope.

President Putin’s numerous statements condemning racism and antisemitism have no doubt contributed to this change of heart. Unfortunately, many police officers, prosecutors, and judges don’t seem to have gotten the message.

While some Russian police officials this April reacted by condemning the upsurge in racist violence and warning about the increased danger of extremist groups, others reverted to earlier patterns of denial and obfuscation. Disturbingly, the most disingenuous of these reactions came from the police chiefs of St. Petersburg and Voronezh—two cities that, along with Moscow, are the national epicenters of the neo-Nazi movement.

On April 21, 2006 Mikhail Vanichkin—head of the St. Petersburg GUVD—called recent press criticism of his city as a hot spot of racist violence a “provocation” organized by the media to discredit local authorities. He claimed that as a result, police are feeling pressure to “hush up” crimes committed by foreigners against the local population, rather inappropriately using the term nashie rebyata (“our guys”) to describe ethnic Russians victimized by foreigners. In Voronezh this April, the head of the region’s GUVD—General Lieutenant Aleksandr Dementev—came close to topping his notorious 2003 claim that no skinheads exist in that city, where dozens of neo-Nazi attacks have been recorded since the late 1990s. This time, General Dementev low-balled murder statistics to bolster his claim that the number of foreigners murdered in Voronezh over the past few years were not enough to worry about.

At the same time, far too many prosecutors continue a long-standing practice of classifying what appear to be hate crimes as ordinary assaults, murders or “acts of hooliganism.” The latter charge, which can encompass anything from drunk and disorderly behavior to actually sending someone to the emergency room, is particularly open to abuse, due to its broad scope and the fact that hooliganism charges tend to carry light penalties.

Thanks to a combination of victims’ fears and the efforts of some law enforcement officials to “cook the books” by either not reporting hate crimes at all, not making a serious effort to investigate hate crimes, or burying them within mountains of statistics on ordinary assaults, murders, and incidents of “hooliganism,” there is no comprehensive, reliable way to track hate crimes in Russia. All we can do is to follow the trend lines—the number of reported attacks, the geographic scope of the attacks, and the severity of the attacks—all of which demonstrate that the situation is rapidly deteriorating.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today.

Click here for the extended April 2006 report.

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Copyright 2007 by UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.