Getting Radical About Extremism

On June 21, President Vladimir Putin made an important symbolic gesture by awarding the Order of Courage to Tatyana Sapunova, the 28-year-old woman who was severely wounded on May 27 when a booby trap exploded while she attempted to tear down an anti-Semitic sign outside Moscow. Sapunova was as startled as anyone by Putin's move: "The news was entirely surprising," she was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying.

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One reason why Sapunova and others were so surprised is that Putin's public track record on the problems of nationalism and extremism -- like that of former President Boris Yeltsin -- is unimpressive. To take just one example, on April 27, 2000, Putin awarded a medal for "distinguished service to the fatherland" to then Krasnodar region Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, a man noted for his frequent obnoxiously racist and anti-Semitic utterances. The award came less than one year after the Moscow Helsinki Group listed Krasnodar as "the most infamous region [of Russia] when it comes to state-supported extremism." The region "has become the saddest example of the installation of a regime of extreme xenophobia and ethnic discrimination in a major Russian region. Without a doubt, the major factor is the head of the administration, Nikolai Kondratenko," the report reads. But instead of being reviled, Kondratenko was quietly removed to the Federation Council. Most recently, he was heard from in February when he sent an envoy to the founding conference of the openly anti-Semitic People's Patriotic Party, at which one party leader said that Jews "must return what they have looted in Russia and publicly repent to the Russian people for the crimes that Jewish terrorists and extremists have committed."

Now, seemingly, Putin has changed his mind, and since mid-May, when Putin himself suddenly determined that it is an urgent national problem, extremism has become one of the most discussed topics in Russia. Since then, a controversial new bill on extremist crimes has been drafted and then pushed through the State Duma and the Federation Council with lightning speed, while the country has been rocked by a number of high-visibility hate crimes from Kaliningrad to the Far East.

The new law has come under sharp and justified criticism from liberals and activists. Primarily, critics contend that the bill is too vague, making it potentially a weapon against almost any kind of political activity. Given that local prosecutors are notoriously under the thumb of local officials, and that many of those officials have an odious record of abusing their "administrative resources" to further their own political ends, activists are wary of handing them yet another weapon to use against the country's fragile civil society.

Moreover, critics note that Russia already has enough laws to prosecute extremist groups, but that law enforcement officials have been inexplicably reluctant to use them. Putin and Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov have repeatedly publicly acknowledged this fact. On July 11, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasiliyev likewise admitted that regional officials take extremist and racist crimes far too lightly, "tending to describe them as mere childish naughtiness or hooliganism." As if on cue, a local police official in Irkutsk on the same day told journalists that there was no evidence that an incident in which a gunman fired into a mosque during a prayer service was an extremist crime and, therefore, his department is treating it as "hooliganism." On July 7, 12 people were hospitalized after a brawl between Armenians and Russians in the Moscow region town of Krasnoarmeisk. When the Armenians called the police for help, they were told that "there was not enough staff to respond," according to Emmanuil Dolbakyan, chairman of the Ararat Armenian cultural center in Moscow.

It remains to be seen whether symbolic gestures, such as Putin's recent public statements or bestowing the award upon Sapunova, will be able to change these long-entrenched attitudes.

Although no one is certain exactly how many Russians are actively involved in extremist groups, it is evident that solving the problem is much more a matter of education and leadership than of law enforcement. Speaking one day after the rampage in Moscow following Russia's World Cup loss to Japan, during which rioters targeted Asian tourists and businesses, a senior official in the Education Ministry made exactly this point. "The roots of yesterday's events lie in the complex, overall social situation in the country. Spiritually, we have lost an entire generation, and now it is practically impossible to reach their hearts and minds," Valentina Berezina, head of the ministry's Supplementary Education Department, was quoted as saying. "On the state level, we must create and implement complex programs to bring together the strengths of all social institutes, including, first of all, the family."

Notably, the recent parliamentary debate on the new anti-extremism law has not included an examination of the federal program on "forming the conditions of tolerance and preventing extremism in Russian society," which was adopted in August 2001. That four-year plan, although far from perfect, is under the auspices of the Education Ministry, but foresees the involvement of nearly a dozen other agencies. According to the plan, by the end of this year, the program should already have developed experimental educational programs to promote tolerance, programs that should be part of the national educational curriculum by 2004. During the admittedly cursory and facile discussion of the new law on combating extremism, no one in the Duma or the Federation Council considered it useful to check up on the progress of this initiative or to suggest that bolstering it might be more productive than the law being rammed through the legislature.

Another crucial factor that has allowed extremist groups to fester in the regions is the weakness of the local media, a condition that has been cultivated by local and national authorities for their political ends. Local media, ideally, should cast light on such phenomena at the earliest stages, when mere public outrage can be enough to have a decisive effect. In Russia, however, state-controlled local media have shown little interest in covering such groups, and independent media has generally been too weak and vulnerable to be effective.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia's leading extremist group, Russian National Unity, or RNE, waged an unrelenting national campaign of intimidation and lawsuits against local journalists who dared to report on its activities or tag it with the label "fascist." In 2000, the Glasnost Defense Foundation published a book detailing typical cases from the second half of the 1990s in Voronezh, Stavropol and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk that ranks among some of the most compelling reading to come out of post-Soviet Russia. One is equally impressed by the courage of journalists such as Voronezh's Natalya Novozhilova and aghast at the helplessness of the law to protect them from the intimidations of fascists who, as often as not, seem to be at least tacitly in league with local officials. This book makes a persuasive case for the argument that a real independent press would do far more to combat extremism in Russia than any number of laws or police officers.

Robert Coalson, former opinion page editor of The Moscow Times, is an editor and analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Newsline, where a shorter version of this comment appeared.