Op-Ed: Ultranationalists have no place in Russian protest movement

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A spate of recent media reports has discussed the inclusion of ultranationalists in the Russian protest movement. Jewish organizations, sensitive to the fragility of a newly emergent Russian civil society and Jewish community, need to speak out against this inclusion.

Ultranationalism and xenophobia are not unique to Russia. Every democratic society has its share of extremist fringe groups. However, a successful democratic society is the antithesis of extremism; a successful democracy coalesces around the center. Diverse viewpoints about policy, authority and social behavior must be supported by a core foundation of society’s respect for individual human dignity, self-determination and freedom of expression.

These core democratic values have spurred the current protest movement in Russia. In the wake of the tainted results from December’s parliamentary elections, protesters have taken to the streets. Faced with another limited electoral choice, the protesters are seeking a different process for the March presidential vote – a process that is fair, transparent and gives meaningful expression to opposition views.

Possibly for the first time in Russia’s thousand-year history, protesters are not seeking “bread.” They are not illiterate serfs deprived of land and forced to live lives of desperation. They are, by and large, the new urban, educated middle class.

NCSJ, founded 40 years ago to support free emigration for Soviet Jews and a leading advocate for Jews in the former Soviet states since 1991, supports the core values of a democratic state with a strong civil society for Russia.

For the past two decades, the renaissance of Jewish life and communal institutions across Russia has rested on a commitment to the rule of law that assures freedom of religion and respects ethnic diversity. We work with all parts of Russian society that seek to strengthen the rule of law, eliminate popular anti-Semitism and secure the benefits of a free society.

These values are not a part of the Russian ultranationalist fringe. It is a movement that thrives on violence in the name of ethnic purity. It is a movement blind to the strengths and values of a multi-ethnic society, a society that has been the reality in Russia throughout its history.

At no stage of the political process should extremists be part of the mainstream discussion. Extremists will not moderate their positions as part of a broader social coalition. The moderate opposition must make clear that Russia has no place for those who promulgate intolerance.

No one can predict the future of the protest movement in Russia. Conflicts within the ranks of the protesters about including ultranationalists are a reflection of larger cultural tensions within Russia. Organizations with a long history in Russia, like ours, have a special obligation to articulate the democratic values that create respect for diversity and religious freedom. Societies based on these values are good for all ethnicities and religious minorities. They are the road to a more open and prosperous way of life for the 21st century.

(Mark B. Levin is the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.)

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