A major human rights report, released in the second half of the year, says racist attacks are on the rise across Russia. The problem is well known to the Russian government. In an effort to combat hate crimes, President Vladimir Putin signed into law an anti-extremism bill in July.
Nearly every month in Russia, the media carry at least one report, and often more, about yet another racist attack in Russia. Many of the attacks occur in Moscow, but authorities say neo-Nazi skinheads and extremists are increasingly turning up in cities where they never existed before.
According to official statistics released this year, some 10,000 Russians, many of them young people, are members of neo-Nazi groups.
President Putin has urged police to pay more attention to preventing the spread of inter-ethnic clashes following last year's rampage at a Moscow street market, during which several hundred skinheads armed with metal rods killed three dark-skinned traders and wounded 40 others. But the attacks continue.
One of the most serious incidents took place in July, when a crowd of Russians went on a rampage in a town outside Moscow, severely beating at least twelve Armenians. The attack occurred a day after an Armenian wounded a Russian in a bar fight. Four months earlier, an Afghan interpreter was stabbed to death by skinheads.
Police do not keep separate statistics on racist and anti-semitic attacks in Russia, putting them together with other crimes under the category of "hooliganism." But experts warn the skinhead movement is gaining strength across the nation.
One Chechen woman from Grozny, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, knows of the movement first-hand. She was attacked by six or seven skinheads who left her badly beaten and bruised. But she says she was more emotionally damaged by the fact that although there were many witnesses to the 15-minute attack, not a single person came to her aid.
The woman said the Russian government knows the problem all too well. But, she complained, "the authorities don't do anything." She pointed out that no one makes any arrests or takes any punitive measures. She paused a moment and added, "We need Stalin times back."
Her injuries were so severe, however, they did attract the attention of a human rights worker volunteering in her town outside Moscow. But despite the volunteer's offer of support, the victim said she decided against reporting the incident out of fear for herself and her three young children. She added that she has absolutely no faith in anyone, after the attack, least of all the police.
Asked if she knew why she had been singled out, she said the answer was simple. She said her assailants, as they beat her, made clear they didn't like her because they considered her a foreigner.
Last July, amid rising concern about the increasing number and brazenness of the attacks, President Putin signed an anti-extremism law aimed at cracking down on the problem, which he said could have "disastrous" consequences for Russia, given the multi-ethnic make-up of the nation.
In a 400-page report released in October, the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, concluded that the most vulnerable ethnic groups are Chechens, Gypsies, Jews and Meskhetian Turks.
Yury Dzhibladze, who heads another human rights group, the Center of Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Russia, believes Meskhetian Turks, most of whom reside in Russia's southern Krasnodar region, face the biggest threat.
The Meskhetian Turks hail from Georgia, but Stalin relocated them to Central Asia in 1944.
"This year we witnessed a growing campaign aimed at their expulsion from the region," said Mr. Dzhibladze. "They are physically forced from the agricultural fields where they work by special police groups and para-military cossack groups strongly supported by the regional authorities. They are not allowed to sell their agricultural products on the market. This year they are facing discrimination in health care and in schools."
Mr. Dzhibladze went on to say that, as shocking as the treatment is, he is not surprised considering that the state-controlled media describe the Meskhetian Turks as being "Turkish spies" or a people originating from a so-called "criminal nation." Even the Governor of Krasnodar has openly stated Turks are unwelcome, Mr. Dzhibladze added.
According to him, the situation is only likely to worsen, with officials in Krasnodar now saying that as of December they will no longer extend the three-month temporary residence permits of the Meskhetian Turks, as has been long-standing practice.
For Mr. Dzhibladze, it also appears as if Russian authorities are seeking to portray the problem of extremism as involving only Islamic extremists. That way, he said, they can fit it into a general picture of Russia's overall struggle against so-called "terrorists," particularly in Chechnya. But Mr. Dzhibladze maintains the matter is far more complex, with the Russian government, in his view, implicated in the problem.
"The state prefers to describe the situation as if there are some marginal skinhead groups that are difficult to combat while the problem is really much deeper, in that the state itself is as much a part of the discrimination, starting with the police, the prosecutors, the courts and local administrators," he said.
Mr. Dzhibladze blames the Russian authorities for at least some of the discrimination and harassment carried out against ethnic minorities in Russia. He said their failure to crack down hard against it has sent a signal that such action is acceptable. He added that the message then carries over into the general public.
Seventeen-year-old Liza Smirnova lives near a street market in Moscow that she says has more the feeling of an oriental or eastern bazaar than a Russian market. She said her mother often warns her to come home early, fearing she may be attacked by one of the traders. But Liza wonders why she should be afraid in her own country.
Ms. Smirnova said she has a feeling that one morning she will buy a gun and "shoot all these blacks" - a racist nickname many Russians use for dark-skinned people.
"I am not a Nazi," Liza added, "I am a patriot."
Mr. Dzhibladze maintains that in order for the situation to improve, the Russian government must first openly acknowledge that there is a problem with racism and extremism in Russia. He said the government must then work to change its policies, especially at the state and local level.
The Moscow Helsinki Report also places the blame for the growth of racism and extremism in the country squarely on the Russian government.
Russian interior ministry officials declined to respond to the charges, as did several other federal agencies contacted by VOA.
However, in a recent round-table discussion, the minister for national affairs of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Zorin, is quoted as having said that religious extremism is the prime danger facing Russia at this time.
He emphasized that amending laws is definitely important. But he said the Russian government will never be able to solve the problem of extremism alone. According to Mr. Zorin, the effort will only bear fruit with close cooperation between civil, public and religious organizations.
Part of VOA's yearend series