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Russian fascist { August 11 2002 }

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Attacks on Foreigners Rising in Russia
Frequency of Violence, Recruiting By Fascist Groups Alarm Kremlin

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 11, 2002; Page A01

KRASNOARMEYSK, Russia -- The fight that night at the tiny hole-in-the-wall Three Palms bar started much as fights do in bars around the world: Men who have been drinking step outside to punch each other over a woman.

Then matters got out of hand. A knife appeared and Igor Samoluk wound up on the ground, bleeding. By the next day, a band of ethnic Russians eager for vengeance against Samoluk's Armenian assailant roamed around town bursting into apartments and beating up every Armenian they could find.

A dozen Armenians ended up in the hospital with smashed faces and broken bones. "You can imagine how much blood there was," recalled a nurse who treated them. But that only inflamed the passions set loose by the barroom brawl. Within a week, hundreds of Russians gathered at town hall demanding that two men arrested for beating Armenians be freed and that illegal immigrants be evicted.

The pogrom of Krasnoarmeysk, as the episode last month in this small town north of Moscow came to be called here, put on display a streak of ethnic and religious violence that has increasingly troubled Russia. Long-simmering tensions in a country built as a multi-ethnic empire have erupted regularly enough to alarm the Kremlin.

Young black-clad men calling themselves skinheads wander the streets looking for Armenians, Chechens, Azerbaijanis and other dark-skinned people to attack. African diplomats and their families have been repeatedly accosted; last week the son of a Cameroon diplomat was beaten by a half-dozen men. A mob rampaged through a market bludgeoning three foreign nationals -- an Indian, a Tajik and an Azerbaijani -- to death. And recently anti-Semitic signs planted along roadsides have been rigged with hidden explosives to blow up anyone who takes them down.

"The situation is very bad, it's very bad for us," said Benjamin Legnongo-Ndumba, the ambassador from Gabon who along with other African envoys met recently with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to complain. "We told him that we are afraid to go to restaurants, theaters, parks -- that every time some of us get attacked. It's very dangerous for us here."

Among recent victims was a Jewish American teenager of Russian descent. Yakov Shmuel Vershubsky came to Russia from his home of Muncie, N.Y., to study in his father's homeland. One day in May, just before his 16th birthday, he was walking to a synagogue when a couple of skinheads approached him from behind. "I turned around to look at them and they punched me in the nose," Vershubsky recalled. As they hit him, they called out "Zhid," a Russian epithet for Jew.

Vershubsky was left with a broken nose that will require plastic surgery -- and a commitment to move somewhere safer. "The police aren't looking," Vershubsky said. "They aren't doing anything. They wrote it up and put it in the archives."

By many accounts, the number of self-declared skinheads or fascists is on the rise. Exact numbers are hard to come by; a recent report by the prosecutor general's office estimated that crimes against foreign nationals have increased by 31 percent recently. Police estimate there are 7,000 skinheads in Russia, but human rights groups say there are that many in Moscow alone and 25,000 in all nationwide.

The skinheads report that recruitment is up significantly. The People's National Party, one of the more visible fascist organizations operating here, claims 1,000 members in Moscow and 10,000 throughout Russia.

"Over the last year, the organization has grown 10 times thanks to the influx of young people -- 15- and 16-year-olds," said Semyon Tokmakov, the group's shaven-headed deputy director. "Give us more time. In two or three years, they'll grow up and they'll be better educated and they'll be warriors of the white race."

The situation in Russia mirrors recent tensions in Western Europe, where a backlash against Asian and African migrant workers and asylum-seekers has reshaped politics. Anti-immigration politician Jean-Marie Le Pen surprised France with a second-place finish in presidential elections, while similar parties surged ahead in recent elections in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Alexander Ivanov-Sukharevsky, a former film director who founded the People's National Party in Russia in 1994, calls himself an admirer of Le Pen. "In the future, I see a united Europe, based on the unity of blood," he said in a telephone interview. In Russia, he believes, a turning point has been reached. "Our people have woken up finally. Our people are ready to become full masters of their own land."

Yet the history of ethnic relations in Russia differs significantly from that of Western Europe, where the tension stems from the arrival of new immigrants seeking economic or political refuge. Russia, by contrast, has long been a multi-ethnic mix of nationalities swallowed up by imperial expansion in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Official anti-Semitism was prevalent in the Soviet years. But the sort of unsanctioned random street violence seen lately represents a different phenomenon that in some cases has been exacerbated by the economic travails of the past decade.

"In Soviet times, there was nothing like this," said Emmanuel Dolbakyan, head of the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center in Moscow. "This sort of thing simply was not possible. People wouldn't have dared."

Now there are fears that it is making Russia a tinderbox. "It's a real threat to our country," said Alexei Navalny, who helped found a group in June called Moscow Without Fascism that hopes to sponsor a rock concert against skinheads in September. "Russia is a multinational country. If in Moscow they beat Tatars and Bashkirs, then in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, they're going to beat Russians, too. It can explode our country from the inside."

President Vladimir Putin has responded to the flurry of attacks, pushing a law against extremism through the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, and inviting the victim of an anti-Semitic attack to the Kremlin to award her a medal for courage.

"Unfortunately, now we are witnessing the growth of extremism not only in Russia but in many other countries, including countries with so-called developed democracies," Putin said last month. "I must say that for any country extremist activities undermine the very foundation of the state's existence and for such a country as Russia it is absolutely fatal since our country is multinational and multi-religious."

"If we let this chauvinistic disease of either national or religious intolerance develop," Putin added, "we will ruin our country."

But Putin's response has generated as much criticism as praise. The measure he signed into law two weeks ago grants wide powers to the government to shut down groups that it deems extremist; some critics maintain it could be used to target more mainstream organizations disliked by the Kremlin, such as Greenpeace, the environmental group.

Even without the new law, Putin's government has moved to shut down several publications linked to ethnic extremists. Last month courts approved the government closure of Russkiye Vedomosti, a nationalist paper, for targeting Jews and other minorities, and Limonka, a paper tied to jailed nationalist writer Eduard Limonov, for inciting ethnic conflict and calling for overthrow of the government. At the same time, Limonov was put on trial for preparing terrorist acts. Last week, the government closed Russkiye Khozian (Russian Master), a magazine affiliated with a man connected to a market rampage in Moscow.

The prosecutor's office says fewer than half of the recent reported crimes against foreigners have been solved.

Take the anti-Semitic signs. In June, Tatyana Sapunova, 28, an ethnic Russian, stopped her car outside Moscow to take down a sign that read "Death to Zhids," only to have it explode and burn her badly. While she was later honored by Putin at the Kremlin, a dozen other booby-trapped signs have since been found around the country and just one teenager has been caught.

Mikhail Zhuk, the top prosecutor handling such cases, said he hoped authorities would be able to respond more vigorously with the advent of Putin's law. "Now that the law has been signed it will activate our work," he said. "We'll pay more attention."

One center of fascism in Moscow can be found in a cramped apartment in a run-down building near downtown. On the wall hangs the flag of the People's National Party, with its symbol a Nazi-style cross. As its teenage acolytes enter, they greet Tokmakov, the deputy director, with a Seig-Heil salute. On the television plays a video of the latest initiation in February, a scene reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally complete with a burning cross and an oath pledging loyalty to "the triumph of the white race."

Perhaps the Klan style is no accident. Tokmakov and others from the party have met David Duke, the former Klan leader who last year rented an apartment in Moscow and published an anti-Semitic book in Russian. Still, Tokmakov, who considers Hitler a "political genius" and celebrates his birthday "just like my own," distinguishes his group from the Klan and the Nazis because it supports Israel as the "lesser of two evils" needed to keep Arab "misfits" away from Russia. "Arabs are the kikes of today," he said.

Like other skinheads and fascists, the party's members complain that Armenians, Azerbaijanis and others from the Caucasus region have taken jobs from ethnic Russians, monopolize local produce markets, don't pay taxes and harass women on the street. "They don't wash themselves, they don't clean up, they sleep 10 to 15 in a small room," said Tokmakov. "They bring their dirty culture here. And the more of them come here, the dirtier Moscow becomes."

Officially, the party disavows violence, but its members happily recount tales of after-hours beatings. Tokmakov, who at 27 favors camouflage pants and a knife on his belt, was convicted of attacking a U.S. Marine in Moscow in 1998 because he was African American and "looked impudent." He served time in jail, where he met Ivanov-Sukharevsky and enlisted in the party.

Maxim Martsynkhevich, 18, his hair chopped down to a short bristle, said he seeks out trouble at every opportunity. For a time, he said, he and his friends went to a dormitory where they knew they would find Asian students. "Every day we beat Chinese there," he said.

Martsynkhevich traces his animosity to 1999 when terrorist bombs blew up several apartment buildings in Russia; the blasts were widely blamed on Chechen separatists and became a primary impetus for the current war in Chechnya. His girlfriend, he said, died in one of the explosions. "The dark ones, I just hate them," he said. "I don't consider them human. It doesn't just burn me up, it drives me crazy. I look around and if I don't see any obstacles, I'll go beat up this guy and maybe even kill him and I'll have as much joy as if I bought a car."

Asked if he had actually killed anyone, he demurred, but added eagerly, "I very much want to kill someone."

On his hand was a bandage left over from what he said was a knife fight. After some friends were beaten up by Caucasians, he said, he went looking to even the score and found a couple of dark-skinned men at a bus stop. It did not matter that the two had nothing to do with the earlier fight. "If you beat up one, then the others will be afraid," he said.

A similar rationale seemed to be behind the attacks that followed the bar fight in Krasnoarmeysk, a town of 26,000 where the textile factory shuttered in the 1990s has just reopened. Krasnoarmeysk had avoided the sort of violence more prevalent in Moscow, 30 miles southwest, yet harbored quiet resentment of the Caucasians who run much of the local market.

After Igor Samoluk was stabbed, other Russians could not take out their anger on his alleged assailant because he was arrested. So they went looking for other Armenians.

Vitaly Pashentsev, the town's top official, said the incident was exploited by outsiders with their own agendas. Most people in town get along well. Yet he said he remained worried about the dark impulses exposed. "Many people have negative attitudes toward the Caucasians," he said. "Sometimes I'm appalled by my own people."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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