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Russia’s Campaign Season Marked by Growing Nationalism

A trail of racist killings has heightened ethnic tensions as Russia gears up for the fall political season.

In the latest twist, a grisly video circulating on the Web showed the beheading of two men — one from Tajikistan, one from the Caucasus — bound and gagged in the woods against the backdrop of a red swastika banner.

Russia’s parliamentary election is set for Dec. 2, three months before the March presidential election. The Russian constitution bars President Vladimir Putin from running for a consecutive third term, and his expected departure has unleashed much speculation about a likely successor.

Fueling that speculation was Putin’s naming of a little-known government official to become Russia’s new prime minister. Viktor Zubkov, a financial regulator, was named on Sept. 12 just hours after Putin dissolved the government of long-serving Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in an effort, he said, to better prepare the country for after the elections. Zubkov was confirmed by the parliament two days later.

Zubkov, a loyal technocrat, said he may run for president next year. Some observers considered his appointment as a signal that Putin intended to retain control after he leaves the presidency, while others did not see Zubkov as Putin’s successor but rather as a caretaker prime minister.

If the past year of ethnic flare-ups is any indication, the use and abuse of nationalist rhetoric will shadow the campaign. The subject of xenophobia has become increasingly politicized, with the authorities seemingly more interested in co-opting the nationalist vote than developing effective means to handle the problem.

The steady rise in racially motivated violence in Russia, and the electorate’s hardening attitude toward labor migrants and ostracized ethnic groups, has created an environment where the backing, or at least tacit toleration, of chauvinistic sentiments at the highest governmental level is no longer beyond the political pale.

“Expressions of prejudice will undoubtedly be played up in the course of the campaign,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, a sociologist and the director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis in Moscow, which monitors extremism and hate crimes. “There is a great incentive for politicians to do that, and the figures who joined Just Russia from the disbanded Rodina party have already shown great willingness to indulge in this.”

The Just Russia party was created over the past year with the Kremlin’s implicit sanction in an effort to create a “social-democratic” alternative to the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

Formed last October from three previous groups — Party of Life, Party of Pensioners and the nationalist Rodina (Motherland) Party — Just Russia combines loyalty to Putin and “patriotic” rhetoric with a more overt socialist orientation than United Russia.

Some of the more extremist members of Rodina were relegated to secondary roles in the new party. Others left, including Rodina’s charismatic former leader Dmitry Rogozin. But the party’s parliamentary faction is still home to deputies known for nationalistic and openly anti-Semitic appeals, including the signers of last year’s infamous “Letter of the 500” that urged a ban on all Jewish organizations in Russia.

Several of the splinter groups created in Rodina’s wake, such as Rogozin’s Great Russia, were denied registration and not admitted to the parliamentary campaign. There is talk of creating yet another party, Patriots of Russia, a proposed umbrella organization for various nationalist groups left adrift in the run-up to the elections.

Other mainstream forces are also dabbling in nationalist rhetoric, including Putin’s own United Russia. Two years ago it instituted a new national holiday, the Day of People’s Unity on Nov. 4, which has become the occasion for rowdy rightist rallies. The most well-known was last fall’s “Russian March,” where ultranationalist groups gathered openly in the streets of Moscow carrying anti-Semitic and anti-minority signs.

Putin himself defended the economic interests of Russia’s so-called “native,” i.e. ethnically Russian, population, at a government meeting last year, which led to a crackdown on outdoor markets peopled by vendors from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The country’s rising nationalism is reflected in a number of “anti-extremist” laws passed in July, which prosecutors have used against competing parties and public organizations. The legislation was revised to include bans on “slandering an official” and fomenting “social hatred.”

“The very notion of extremism has widened so much this year that it’s almost certain to be continually manipulated and used for ulterior motives,” Verkhovsky said.

Some political observers believe, however, that the nationalist rhetoric may be more moderate than expected during the parliamentary campaign, as the electoral outcome in the Duma ballot is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

“The electoral proceedings are being tightly coordinated by the Kremlin, and it’s already clear which parties will advance to the Duma,” said Leonid Stonov, international director of the United Council for Soviet Jewry’s Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law in the former Soviet Union.

“It may not even be necessary to deploy this nationalist card, although some politicians will still go ahead just to boost their rating,” he said in a telephone interview from Highland Park, Ill.

Fifteen parties are registered officially in Russia, but only four have a realistic chance for seats in the Duma. The latest survey by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion shows United Russia ahead with 57 percent, trailed by the Communist Party at 18 percent and Just Russia with 14 percent.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democratic Party, balancing loyalty to the Kremlin with a more incendiary public campaign, is expected to take 10 percent.

The situation of minorities continues to worry experts.

“We have seen increasingly repressive policies toward illegal residents,” said Lidiya Grafova, a prominent human rights campaigner and head of the Migration news agency.

The SOVA Center estimates that more than 60,000 people belong to violent, ultrarightist groups. And while prejudice may not shape the electoral outcome this fall, the government’s lack of action on revamping immigration policy will have drastic long-term repercussions.

“I don’t believe any party will have anything positive to say about immigration, and people like Rogozin, if admitted to take part in the campaign, will start a drumbeat of negativity,” she said. “The genie of xenophobia has been set free. There may be an understanding inside the Kremlin of the need for a meaningful dialogue on the issue, but the authorities are likely to keep silent.”

SOVA’s most recent data showed that racially motivated attacks rose by nearly 25 percent this year, with 350 episodes and 38 deaths reported in 2007.

Although hate crimes mostly target migrant workers and ethnic minorities, the Jewish community has repeatedly been victimized, from the neo-Nazi stabbing attack at Moscow’s Choral Synagogue in January 2006 to the murder of a yeshiva student in St. Petersburg in May.

An opinion survey by the Levada Center in July showed that most Russians attribute the rise in nationalism to “poor living conditions,” 31 percent, and a “provocative attitude on the part of national minorities,” 30 percent. Fifty percent believe some form of violent ethnic conflict is possible in Russia.

A later Levada poll showed, however, that 85 percent of the respondents “rarely” or “almost never” feel hostility toward other groups and 82 percent practically never experienced it themselves.

For all the glum assessments of the situation, outright expressions of racial intolerance remain a relatively marginal phenomenon in public life.

The SOVA Center’s Verkhovsky notes that particular groups are almost never singled out by politicians, with the exception of gypsies and “non-native” migrants in general.

Anti-Semitism also remains more of a latent, albeit widely shared, prejudice but rarely a part of political discourse. It is tolerated, however: A number of current Duma deputies, mostly members of the disbanded Rodina faction, have made inflammatory statements without apparent repercussions to their political careers.

“Anti-Semitism often takes on more stealthy forms, for example as anti-Zionism, and no one has been held accountable for the more reprehensible acts,” Stonov said.

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