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Yeltsin Cracks Down on Fascism Amid Plans for 50th Ceremonies

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After weeks of anticipation, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has signed into law a decree on fascism that urges legal and security bureaucracies to do a better job to enforce existing laws against political extremism.

“Fanning the flames of social, racial, national and religious antagonism has become increasingly common in the Russian Federation,” the text states. “Anti- constitutional activity by extremist groups has reached major proportions, and has become ever more blatant.”

The decree, signed last week, exhorts the public prosecutor’s office, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Counterintelligence Service to increase their actions against hard-line groups, which includes stopping organizations that finance or distribute hate publications.

Yeltsin’s willingness to speak out publicly and sign a decree that appears to apply to neo-nationalist, anti-Semitic groups is a switch from his usual reticence on the topic. Yet these groups, known in Russia as fascist organizations, have become a more mainstream concern as Russia approaches the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory against Nazi Germany, to be commemorated May 9.

Yeltsin’s decree was directly linked to the upcoming anniversary. Nazis in Russia usually are known as fascists. Some have said Russia’s image would be tarnished if neo-fascists were in operation while the country celebrates its defeat of fascism in World War II.

Questions remain, however, about the effectiveness of Yeltsin’s new decree

Alexander Lieberman, director of the Moscow office of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said the decree fails to offer concrete measures to clamp down on extremist groups, especially neo-nationalists.

Others, such as Yevgeny Proshechkin of the Moscow Anti-Fascist Center, said the decree at least puts the spotlight on hate groups and many finally spur the government authorities to use current laws to stop the publication and sale of books such as Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

According to the Anti-Fascist Center, about 100 hate groups exist in Russia with a membership of about 5,000.

Despite their small numbers, Proshechkin said, they play a dangerous role. They accelerate the spread of extreme nationalism and intolerance among a population that is nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union and the stability that accompanied totalitarianism under leaders such as Stalin.

In an article last month in the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, Sergei Gryzunov, chairman of the State Press Committee, wrote:

“If anyone thinks that there are no grounds for fascists or Nazis coming to power, let him compare the Weimar Republic and our own: the collapse of a great empire; the fall in production, inflation, growing unemployment; rightist propaganda in military and law enforcement structure; insecurity about the future; a week government; the formation of rightist militarized organizations and the flow of people to them from the army and the police; the unimpeded publication of the fascist and Nazi press.”

“There are grounds for alarm, serious ones,” Gryzunov also said.

Shortly after Gryzunov’s article was published, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that he would be removed from his post. Gryzunov responded that the decision was connected to his anti-fascist sentiments and that he managed to hold on to his job only after fierce public lobbying from media leaders and the Russian intelligentsia.

In addition to Chernomyrdin;s threat against Gryzunov, there are other indications that the government is less than entirely committed to its fight against modern-day fascism.

The same day that Yeltsin signed his decree, hard-liner Alexei Vedenkin was released from prison on the condition that he would not leave Moscow.

Vedenkin, a member of the extreme nationalist Russian National Unity Party, had been jailed after he threatened to shoot two leading opponents of the war in Chechnya and spoke in favor of mass purges. He has been accused of threatening murder, but another charge of inciting ethnic hatred has been dropped.

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