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Human Rights Activists: Xenophobia in Russia Becoming Dangerously Common

Hundreds of ultra-nationalists and far-right demonstrators rallied in the Russian capital a week ago despite a ban imposed on their gathering by the city's authorities. The march followed a state-orchestrated campaign against Georgians in Moscow, which resulted in closure of dozens of Georgian businesses and deportations of over a hundred Georgians. Human rights activists warn of rising levels of xenophobia in Russia and say it might be getting out of control.

Twenty-four hours -- that's how much time the Tuganidze family was given to pack up and move out of their Moscow apartment. They'd lived here for the last four years. But the landlord ordered them to get out -- or face the prospect of police action.

The family called the police themselves in a bid to get their rent refunded, but they say they were told that Georgians cannot now count on any protection from the authorities.

Natalya Babanashvili says that recently, being a Georgian in Moscow has become very uncomfortable for her. "I am afraid to speak Georgian on the street. Maybe I am paranoid, but I have a feeling that people will look at it the wrong way, that the police will come and look at my documents.

The authorities began an anti-Georgian campaign last month in response to the arrest of four Russian officers in Tbilisi on suspicion of espionage. The officers were released but Moscow continued to impose sanctions on Georgia which included severing postal and transport links with its former Soviet neighbor.

Several dozen Georgian-owned businesses were closed in Moscow and over a hundred Georgians were deported, accused of being illegal immigrants.

‘Russia is for Russians and illegal immigrants must get out’ -- that was the main message for the authorities from a coalition of Neo-Nazi, religious right and moderate nationalist organizations which participated in the so-called Russian March in Moscow on November 4th.

And even though Moscow city authorities banned the march after last year's rally gathered thousands of people who walked through the city carrying Nazi symbols and shouting nationalist slogans, it took place anyway. Up to 2,000 people gathered for the event and organizers say they expected thousands more but they were deterred by the presence of some 6,500 police officers.

Alexander Belov, head of the far-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration -- one of the organizers of the Russian march -- says the movement's popularity has been growing.

"The majority of people share our views and this is a big problem for those in power because power wants to use our slogans to prolong its existence,” he says. “You know, it's impossible to say how many people support us because daily, we receive a huge number of applications to join our movement and we simply aren't able to process them all."

Belov met us in his office located at the Russian lower house of parliament, the Duma. Even though the movement has no official representation in the house, he says it has the support of several lawmakers who allow the group to use the parliament's premises.

That shocks lawmakers like Alexander Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining independent lawmakers in the Duma opposed to the Kremlin. He says the state is to blame for the rise of nationalism.

"In some sense the powers here are reaping what they've sown,” says Ryzhkov. “When six years ago our head of state, Vladimir Putin, ordered Chechen terrorists to be killed -- if necessary in the outhouse -- today we see that this position has become common in society. And now the government, which has provoked those nationalist tendencies, is having trouble stopping this nationalist wave."

Shortly after the nationalist march was over, another demonstration began in the center of Moscow -- an anti-nationalist rally. But it gathered far fewer supporters.

The Tuganidze family says most of their friends have already left Moscow. After becoming homeless in a city that was their home for 10 years, they are now also planning to leave the Russian capital for good.