Accessibility links

Breaking News

Rise of Hard-Line Nationalists in Russia Causes Concern

Russia has seen a groundswell of hate crimes in recent years. The most recent incident involving the stabbing of Jewish synagogue workers and worshippers with a hunting knife, is just the latest in a long series of crimes that analysts say signals a dangerous rise of nationalism and ethnic hatred in the country.

Last week, as Jewish worshippers gathered in a Moscow synagogue for evening prayers, a young man wielding a hunting knife stabbed eight people, seriously wounding five of them.

Analysts say the attack was connected to a violent trend whipped up by politicians exploiting nationalism to win votes.

One of the victims, Mikhail Berlin, describes the scene: "He threw the knife from one hand to the other in order to stab me, shouting that he was God's messenger and wanted to kill us all because we were 'dirty Jews,'" he said.

Police later found hate literature and maps of several Moscow synagogues in his apartment.

They have now charged 20-year-old Alexander Koptsev with attempted murder on ethnic or religious grounds.

The attack was widely condemned by Russia's political establishment.

But the incident is just the latest in a long series of crimes that analysts say signals a dangerous rise of nationalism and ethnic hatred in the country.

There were at least 27 killings attributed to nationalist or skinhead groups last year, according to the SOVA Analytical Information Center in Moscow. Eight of these were homeless people.

Russia's second city of St. Petersburg has gained a reputation for ethnic hate crimes, including the beating death of a 9-year-old girl from Tajikistan two years ago.

Foreign students have also been frequently attacked in the southern university town of Voronezh. These include the slaying in October of Alexander Ayala, who had arrived from Peru just the week before.

Police have been criticized for treating many such cases not as hate crimes but as acts of "hooliganism".

Under Russian law, "hooliganism" carries a much lighter sentence when the perpetrators are arrested, which is often not the case.

Alexei Malashenko, who is with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says economic hardship and a sense of inferiority mostly among young Russians accounts for much of the anti-foreign sentiment.

"A big part of Russian society still continues to think that Russia, maybe in the future will become once again a certain superpower," he said. "Nationalism can be used for a kind of national idea, maybe turned against the West, it may perform a role or certain instrument for social consolidation."

Russia has long had political parties that espouse nationalist ideology.

The first of these was Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, which won more than 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 1993.

Zhirinovsky is known for statements many consider racist and anti-Semitic. He even stated once that Russia should "restore its former empire" by retaking control of places such as Finland and Alaska.

While his party still has a strong presence in parliament, it was joined there two years ago by another group known as Rodina, or "Motherland." Analysts say Rodina's strong showing was mostly the result of support it received from the Kremlin in order to weaken the Communists, long the major opposition party.

The party does appeal to many with its calls to curb the flow of migrant workers into the country, many from the southern Caucasus region or Central Asia.

But critics say there are signs politicians are "playing the nationalist card" in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections due in two years.

Moscow political analyst Nikolai Petrov says this is not something new.

"The central power may be using this 'brown' threat as a means to transfer power in 2007-8 in much the same way they used it in 1996," Petrov says. "At that time, they made the case that the Communists were threatening a comeback, making former President Yeltsin's team look so much better in comparison."

While nationalism might fulfill a political need, Petrov says this can be dangerous as nationalist groups can be difficult to contain or control.

People in Moscow were startled in November by the sight of a huge crowd marching through downtown streets.

The demonstrators carried black flags and wore black clothing, many hiding their faces.

"Glory to Russia!" and "Russia for Russians!" they chanted, raising their arms in a gesture reminiscent of the Nazi salute.

The march put a more public face on the rise of hard-line nationalist groups.

And after the recent synagogue attack, authorities appear to be taking the threat more seriously.