In Russia, nationalists turn on Putin

MOSCOW Thu Dec 1, 2011 1:15pm EST

Russian ultra-nationalists march during a demonstration on the outskirts of Moscow, November 4, 2010. Russia marks the Day of People's Unity on November 4 when it celebrates the defeat of Polish invaders in 1612 and replaces a communist celebration of the 1917 revolution.  REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky

Russian ultra-nationalists march during a demonstration on the outskirts of Moscow, November 4, 2010. Russia marks the Day of People's Unity on November 4 when it celebrates the defeat of Polish invaders in 1612 and replaces a communist celebration of the 1917 revolution.

Credit: Reuters/Mikhail Voskresensky

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Jonibek Kosimov had been missing for nearly a week when his cousin found his body in the morgue. Kosimov, 24, had been discovered in the early autumn sunlight of a forest clearing near the monastery city of Sergiev Posad outside Moscow. His throat had been slit, his face slashed by 21 knife wounds.

Turning to relatives and friends -- migrant laborers, mostly -- the dead man's cousin Shaukatulloh Makhmudov collected the nearly 25,000 roubles ($810) he needed to pay the morgue and send his cousin home. Three days later, on September 10, the corpse was laid in a zinc-lined box, loaded into the cargo compartment of a Boeing 757 and flown to the family's native Tajikistan, on the southern fringe of the former Soviet Union.

"It's not the first time they killed a relative," said Makhmudov. "I've already sent three or four bodies back to Tajikistan. Who do I turn to for help, Medvedev or Putin?"

Nearly three months on, investigators say they have no clue who committed the murder. For migrants and human rights groups, the crime has become the latest symbol of Russia's violent and angry racism. Rights groups cited it in an online petition to the Kremlin demanding an end to such crimes. Tajikistan, which says more than 50 of its citizens have been murdered in hate crimes in Russia in the first nine months of 2011 alone, wrote to Russia's Foreign Ministry to demand a proper investigation into the killing.

The truth is, Moscow might be doing all it can. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin is now clamping down on Russian nationalism. Vladimir Putin, who is likely to retake the Kremlin in an election next March, tapped the nationalist fervor during his first two terms as president to feed his vision of a great Russia. But Russia's nationalists now feel he has betrayed them by welcoming migrant laborers and sending billions of dollars to the majority Muslim North Caucasus.

Ultra-right groups have refused to back any political party ahead of parliamentary elections on December 4. They openly mock Putin and his fellow leader Dmitry Medvedev with almost the same vigor as they do migrants. Tapping popular anger over migration, corruption and failing social services, extremists say the leaders they once backed have turned against Russia's 80 percent white Slavic population.

"There is more than just massive dissatisfaction with the state," said Valeriy Solovey, an academic at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations who is considered by many to be the ideologue of the nationalist movement. "It's hatred. That hatred is directed at all organs of the state and it's directed at the very top -- I mean the prime minister and the president."

CRACKDOWN

Russia has a long history of fighting invaders. For more than a century, its people paid tribute to the descendants of the Mongol Empire which invaded Slavic lands in the 13th century, until in the 15th century a series of battles helped throw off the "Mongol Yoke." After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, nationalism again proved powerful. In a country stripped of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, belief in the Russian nation filled an ideological void.

In 1993, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a colonel in the Russian army, and his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia won around 23 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections. Western politicians were initially alarmed by the perceived threat to peace and stability but quickly came to see Zhirinovsky as part of the system.

But nationalism never disappeared. Putin tapped it during his 2000-8 presidency. A Kremlin-backed political party, Rodina -- Motherland -- gave voice to anti-immigrant sentiment in the Russian parliament. Pro-Kremlin youth groups such as Nashi led demonstrations in support of Moscow at home and abroad. For many, Putin embodied the idea of Russia reasserting itself, emboldened by rising oil revenues and growing confidence on the world stage. In an interview in 2000, he said Russia's fundamental values included "none other than patriotism, love of one's motherland, love of one's own home, one's people." The interview was conducted only months after federal troops had toppled a rebel Chechen government.

Violence against non-white minorities and migrants rose dramatically, peaking in 2007-9 when hate groups killed almost 100 people a year, according to Moscow rights group Sova, which tracks racist violence. When more than 700 violent incidents were recorded in 2007, the authorities became convinced that nationalism was spinning out of control. In 2009 the Kremlin abandoned its policy of controllable and moderate nationalism as "useless," said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, Sova's director. "Since then, the only policy is suppression."

A law against extremism had been passed in 2002. Of all the closures of nationalist organizations since then, more than half have been in the past year and a half, Justice Ministry data shows. In 2010 Russian courts handed down 93 convictions to ultra-right criminals, around 50 percent more than the year before. This year at least 160 people have been convicted of racist violence.

RUSSIAN SPRING?

But the violence continues.

Anton Mukhachev, known in neo-Nazi circles as "the Fly," was convicted in September for helping form an extremist gang, the Northern Brotherhood. They started a project called "Big Game: Break the System," in which participants committed criminal acts and sent their fellows pictures to prove it. Participants moved up through "levels," which culminated in filming a migrant shopkeeper being shot.

Sova has recorded at least 103 racist attacks over the first nine months of this year, including 15 deaths, although the organization says the real number is probably higher.

The nationalists' biggest complaint is that millions of people from post-Soviet Central Asian and Caucasus countries migrate to Russia's traditionally Orthodox Christian and Slavic heartland every year. Official statistics put the number of legal immigrants who are given work permits at around one million annually, but Fund Migration XXI Century, a Moscow-based non-governmental organization supported by the World Bank, estimates that 4-8 million people also enter illegally every year to work.

Even though they may be unwelcome, migrants help to offset Russia's demographic crisis. Birth rates and life expectancy plummeted amid the chaos of the 1990s. The shrinking work force has hurt the economy, which U.S. bank Goldman Sachs has predicted will grow by 1.5-4.4 percent a year between 2011 and 2050, roughly half the pace of China and India.

That doesn't impress far right groups, who were buoyed by demonstrations in central Moscow late last year that included some of the bloodiest ethnic violence the city has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some also point to the uprisings that helped bring down leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and say they want to challenge their own leaders.

Few analysts believe Russia's nationalists can bring down Putin. But Pavel Baev, at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, says that's not the point. In a country without real political opposition, he said, nationalism is a movement gaining momentum "in an arena that the political regime is trying to close."

In a survey by independent pollster the Levada Center earlier this year, 58 percent of Russians agreed with the motto "Russia is for Russians" and almost as many believed more blood will be spilt in nationalist conflicts across Russia.

SWIMMING IN LUXURY?

Vladimir Tor, a stocky man with a black goatee whose speech is peppered with quotes from Rudyard Kipling and Aleksandr Pushkin, is part of a campaign called "Stop Feeding the Caucasus!" The movement unites many smaller groups, some of which are reincarnations of previously banned organizations.

Tor was a member of the Movement Against Illegal Immigrants (NAII), which was closed earlier this year. He and other nationalists now meet weekly at Vladimir, a restaurant in southeast Moscow. Catering to working class Russians, it is decorated with chiffon and fake flowers. On a mid-November visit, the television on the wall played Russian pop music videos.

"I am deeply convinced that Russia has entered a grey zone of catastrophe. Everyone understands that the situation is delicate and it can fall at any moment and all at once, like a bridge or the Twin Towers. Bang!" he said, hitting his fist on a table.

Tor said he does not agree with racist violence. His main target, he said, are the subsidies Moscow sends to the North Caucasus, where Russian troops have fought two separatist wars in Chechnya since 1994. Government sources show the money -- around $2 billion a year officially, or officially 91 percent of Chechnya's budget -- is necessary to boost the impoverished region. Authorities believe it helps undercut support for an Islamist insurgency that killed more than 600 people in the first nine months of this year alone.

In comparison, though, Russia's Kirov Province in the Volga region, which is nearly equal in population with Chechnya, receives only about a third of its 41.4-billion-rouble budget ($1.33 billion) from federal funds, Russian Finance Ministry figures show.

In a Reuters interview earlier this year, the Kremlin's envoy to the North Caucasus region, Alexander Khloponin, said the money was crucial to beating the insurgency: "We can keep endlessly killing bandits but we need to create an economic platform to stop the swelling of the ranks of armed groups," said Khloponin, a former businessman and regional governor appointed by Medvedev.

Tor disagrees. Though he offers no hard evidence, he points to increasingly glamorous displays of wealth by Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as proof that something is wrong with Moscow's funding. Kadyrov is a former rebel who fought against federal troops before joining Moscow's side. In October, he celebrated his 35th birthday by inviting Belgian action star Jean Claude Van Damme and Hollywood actress Hillary Swank to a party in his regional capital of Grozny. Singer Seal and violinist Vanessa Mae played for the young leader. His office has said there is nothing wrong with its use of funding.

"Chechnya is swimming in luxury, thanks to the Presidential administration for that," says Tor. "We want the authorities to be occupied more than anything with the problems of Russians. We don't want money to be spent on cities like Grozny, but spent on regions that are on the verge of collapse -- Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk."

Medvedev, who will likely revert to the role of prime minister under Putin, has criticized groups like Tor's, arguing they could help trigger the dissolution of the Russian Federation much as the Soviet Union fell apart.

In a meeting with students and members of pro-Kremlin youth groups in October, Medvedev fielded questions from mixed-race couples and praised the virtues of multi-culturalism. He also took aim at Tor's movement itself. "Stop feeding the Caucasus? What will come of that?" Medvedev said. "I remember the slogans -- stop feeding Central Asia, stop feeding Ukraine, stop feeding Belarus, the Baltic states. And what happened? Our country fell to pieces."

NOTHING TO DO WITH PUTIN

Last December, after a street brawl in which a Muslim migrant from the North Caucasus killed an ethnic Russian football fan, between 5,000 and 10,000 young men swarmed at the gates of the Kremlin, chanting nationalist slogans. Since then, nationalists have held more rallies, more often.

Earlier this year on Russia's National Unity holiday, around 7,000 skinheads, neo-Nazis and ultra-right groups gathered on the outskirts of Moscow to hold an annual demonstration they call the "Russian March." In the biggest gathering of its type so far, young men walked behind a giant wooden cross and priests singing Orthodox hymns. Wearing hooded sweatshirts, surgeons' masks and leather jackets, they gave Nazi-style salutes and chanted offensive slogans about Islam.

Dmitry Yakovlev, 21, who helps put people in touch with the funders of nationalist groups, told Reuters some are funded by politicians and bureaucrats who are tired of Putin's rule and want different policies.

The Kremlin's failure to prosecute perpetrators of racist crimes has for years drawn accusations from human rights groups that some extremists work with its tacit approval. Yakovlev said that for his movement the notion is nonsense.

"The authorities -- they're not homogenous," he said. "It consists of different groups. There is the faction made up of security officers who support Putin, there are those who are more or less liberal, and there are those who are nationalists." His light blue eyes lit up with excitement.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had never heard of allegations that any nationalist groups were supported by the Kremlin: "I can't comment on this," he said.

On December 4, when poll booths close across Russia, nationalists plan another demonstration in central Moscow, in sight of the Kremlin. "We're angry," said Dmitry Dyomushkin, whose Slavic Union was banned last year. "We want to show that this is an election without choices."

(With additional reporting by Roman Kozhevnikov in Dushanbe, Alissa de Carbonnel and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow,; Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

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