Tracking Hate Crimes a Tricky Business

After the 17th body was discovered in mid-February, alarm bells began to sound.

Hate-crime monitors announced a significant spike in xenophobic attacks nationwide, warning that if the trend continued through the end of the year there would be a 200 percent rise in the number of violent racist crimes compared with 2007.

The trend does not appear to be fading. As of Wednesday, 38 people had been murdered in racially motivated attacks, according to the Sova Center, one of the country's two main NGOs tracking hate crimes.

But exactly what conclusions can be drawn from these figures is difficult to gauge given the inexact science of tracking such crimes.

Sova and the other leading NGO in the field, the EU-funded Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, are responsible for nearly all working information on hate crimes in Russia. But their figures tend to leap wildly from year to year and from region to region. And while they describe their data as invaluable, they concede that they face considerable barriers in compiling an accurate portrait of the problem.

"I don't honestly think that anyone has exact statistics," said Alexander Brod, a Public Chamber member and head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

While there is no single methodological standard used worldwide to collect data on hate crimes, many governments track figures culled from local police and NGOs. In Russia's vast regions, many of which lack civic institutions and police trained in identifying racist attacks, experts say this has proven a nearly impossible task.

In many remote regions, for example, Sova relies on a primitive combination of word of mouth and Internet monitoring to gather information, Sova head Alexander Verkhovsky said. Often the organizations can merely scan neo-Nazi chat rooms, follow local media reports and wait for the next blip to appear on the radar.

In areas lacking Internet access, collecting any data at all can be nearly impossible, Verkhovsky said. "In some cases, like Volgograd, we are sure there are more incidents than we know of because there is a very active nationalist movement there," he said. "But we have practically no information from the region."

Sova, which is funded by the Soros Foundation and National Endowment for Democracy, works with local NGOs where they are available. But such organizations are sparse, and where they do exist, they rarely coordinate with law enforcement authorities, said Paul Legendre, acting head of the Fighting Discrimination Program with the New York-based NGO Human Rights First.

"I think we're still a long way away from that in a country like Russia, where there's not the type of cooperation between government authorities and NGOs that we'd like to see," Legendre said.

Human Rights First publishes an annual Hate Crimes Report Card, ranking all 56 OSCE member states on their efforts in tracking and combating racist crimes. Russia, which maintains no official data differentiating hate crimes from other "extremist" crimes, received one of the lowest grades in the 2007 report, ranking at the bottom alongside Belarus and Turkmenistan.

There were 650 racist attacks in Russia last year, up from 564 from 2006, according to Sova figures.

There were notable spikes in such attacks in various regions, including Voronezh and St. Petersburg, both of which saw a 50 percent jump in the number of hate crimes last year compared with 2006, according to Sova.

Establishing trends in other regions, however, is not so clear-cut, Verkhovsky said. In the Irkutsk region, for example, Sova recorded 54 hate crimes last year, up from only eight hate crimes in 2006. The dramatic increase there, he said, was not due to increased ultranationalist activity but rather two large-scale attacks.

Sova has not recorded any hate crimes there this year, Verkhovsky said.

In the Belgorod region, there were four hate crimes recorded in 2005, 18 in 2006 and only one last year, according to Sova.

Gloomy forecasts and jagged trends aside, experts were quick to point out that Russia is hardly alone in failing to thoroughly track the issue.

The Human Rights First report chastised EU members Italy, Estonia and Spain for failing to provide sufficient information on hate crimes.

Jo-Anne Bishop, head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Program at the OSCE, which monitors hate crimes and offers training and recommendations to member governments, noted that fewer than 10 member countries provide what they consider adequate data.

This "tremendous data deficit" across OSCE member states is due in part to a lack of a unifying methodology, Bishop said. "It's very difficult to impose or suggest or recommend a uniform model, because for every country it's different," she said.

Bishop and others said, however, that Russia had shown a greater willingness to tackle the issue of hate crimes.

In 2006, the government sent two experts to an OSCE hate-crimes training seminar in Paris. In December, the Moscow Interior Ministry University invited a group of OSCE trainers to Moscow to conduct a seminar for senior law enforcement officials on recognizing and tracking such crimes. Russia has also expressed interest in joining the OSCE's Regional Network on Hate Crime Prevention and Investigation, Bishop said.

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday told Public Chamber members that law enforcement authorities and judges should take a "harsh position" and not "hide their heads in the sand" when it comes to hate crimes, Itar-Tass reported.

While questions remain about the accuracy of the existing data for Russia, experts and government officials both say the number of hate crimes continues to rise dramatically.

Then First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin told a security conference in January that the number of extremist crimes has risen steadily in recent years, from 130 in 2004 to 356 last year. A majority of these crimes were "ethnically or religiously motivated," Chekalin said, RIA-Novosti reported.

It was unclear whether Chekalin, who was relieved of his duties by executive order, the Kremlin announced Wednesday, was referring primarily to crimes against foreigners and dark-skinned people in Russia, the type of crimes most often recorded by Sova and the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

Chekalin did tell the conference that up to 15 percent of young people "hold nationalist ideas," though it was unclear exactly what criteria the Interior Ministry used to determine that figure.

The ministry referred all inquiries this month to the Prosecutor General's Office, which did not respond to a written request for comment.

Legendre of Human Rights First said the increase in such crimes could merely be a result of closer attention to the issue by authorities and NGOs alike.

"In any country, the more you start monitoring, the more you're going to find that the numbers go up simply because you're taking note of a problem you hadn't taken note of before," he said.

Still, some officials deny any spike in hate crimes. City Prosecutor Yury Syomin told government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta in a March 19 interview that the number of "crimes motivated by religious and ethnic hatred" in Moscow is actually falling "year by year."

"I am sure there is no growing wave of extremism," Syomin said.