Russia has sent large delegations, both official and non-governmental, to the U.N. conference on racism now underway in Durban, South Africa. The Russian human rights activists say ethnic discrimination is an increasing problem in their country.
Russia is sending its largest ever non-governmental human rights representation to Durban, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ordzhonikize is leading the official Russian delegation.
Russian human rights activists say the rise of ethnic discrimination and xenophobia in Russia needs to be addressed, and they hope the focus on these issues at the conference will pressure their government to do more to combat the problem.
Yuri Dzhibladze heads the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow. He says while many Russians may not acknowledge the fact, racism is a major problem in Russia. "We have lots of problems with racism and xenophobia, which is rooted in centuries-long hostility, prejudices toward people of different language, ethnicity, traditions, cultural background," he says.
Human rights activists say the past decade, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, has seen an alarming rise in neo-Nazi groups, gangs of skinheads, and attacks against ethnic minorities.
In April, skinheads rampaged through an open-air Moscow market run by people from the Caucasus region and later stabbed a Chechen man to death near Red Square. In another incident, skinheads beat a black Zimbabwean student at a Moscow metro station. There have also been numerous attacks against synagogues and Jewish schools.
Such incidents make the headlines and have prompted condemnation from President Vladimir Putin, who called the acts "unacceptable."
Some Russians readily admit there is strong resentment, especially against people from the Caucasus, who are generally more dark-skinned than Russians. "Russians hate people from the Caucuses," says 17 year-old Lena. "They don't like their skin color and they think they are all bad and plant bombs all the time, even though not all are like that."
Irina Smirnova, 34, is from Russia's Rostov region and has come to Moscow to look for work. She is a kindergarten teacher by profession. She blames other ethnic groups for the lack of jobs. She says people like the Azeris and Armenians are all over the country and have all the money. "I don't like them," she says.
Kasym, 25, sells concrete at a local builders' market in Moscow. He came two years ago from Kyrgyzstan. He says some Russians are hostile toward him. He says they accuse the outsiders of invading their city and taking their jobs.
Non-Russians often work in construction or sell fruits, vegetables, and other goods in open-air markets. And there they face what human rights activists such as Yuri Dzhibladze describe as systematic harassment and discrimination that is at least tolerated and sometimes supported by the state. "The largest single problem with racism and discrimination in Russia is that it is often sponsored or at least tolerated by the government." he says. "The way public officials, especially on the regional and local level, act when they pay no attention to the activities of right-wing extremist groups, skinheads, or when they make racist statements."
This young vendor does not want to give his name. He says of course he has been harassed by the militia. "They check my documents all the time," he says. "They can arrest you at any time, even if all your papers are in order."
Alexander Abashkin, is an ethnic Russian. He is the director of the "Kitezh" market in central Moscow, where most of the vendors are from the Caucuses.
He says he thinks they have informal orders to keep a close eye on people from the Caucasus. He says if 100 Russians walk by, the police don't ask for documents, but he says if one Caucasian comes by the police will request to see his papers.
Mr. Abashkin says part of the reason for the close police scrutiny is simple discrimination, but it is also partly because recent bombings and terrorist acts in Russia have been blamed on ethnic groups from the Caucasus region.
Yuri Dzhibladze says the government is using ethnic unrest and the war in the breakaway Russian Republic of Chechnya as an excuse to crack down on ethnic minorities. But he says crackdowns are not the way to solve Russia's discrimination problems. "The first thing that needs to happen is the recognition that racism and racial discrimination exist in our country," he says. "The government plainly denies the existence of these problems in Russia and they call these problems ethnic conflicts and ethnic tensions."
Mr. Dzhibladze says Russia's government could begin by enforcing anti-discrimination laws already on the books.
VOA's request for an interview with interior ministry officials on the subject of racism and ethnic discrimination was turned down. A ministry spokeswoman said the ministry sees no reason for concern about these issues and has done no special analysis of the problem.