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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politicians Use Extremists to Own Advantage

Last Sunday's march of the violently nationalist Russian National Unity group drew only about 200 participants in a distant region of northeast Moscow.

Most people would never have even known about it - if Russia's politicians and news media had not raised an immediate hue and cry. Newspapers ran big headlines, independent NTV television showed tape of the marchers with their swastika-like armbands over and over, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov vowed to deal sternly with police who had failed to stop it.

Some observers even suggested that the failure to stop the march might have been behind President Boris Yeltsin's decision to dump Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov on Tuesday.

But there may be more to the swift and outraged reaction than concern over homegrown fascism. For many of Russia's political players, rhetorically attacking a vaguely defined extremism is an important part of pre-election political intrigues and propaganda campaigns.

The intensive coverage was similar to the way the same liberal media covered State Duma Deputy Albert Makashov's anti-Semitic statements in October. Makashov's remarks gave financier Boris Berezovsky, for instance, a soapbox from which to attack the Communist Party.

Everyone similarly spun Sunday's march to his own advantage.

Political analyst Yury Korgunyuk of INDEM research group said it was an important "propagandistic moment" for Luzhkov, who wants to emerge as a fighter against xenophobia and thus appeal to the more liberal of his constituents. At the same time, it exposes the weakness of the federal government and Russia's liberal laws, which can do nothing to curb the "extremists."

Against that background, Luzhkov can emerge as a tough leader whose toughness would be justified in the eyes of Western liberals by the necessity to fight anti-Semites.

For Yeltsin's part, expressions of concern from the Kremlin helped him fulfill his role as guarantor of the constitution, one of the few roles he has left with his influence diminished by poor health and political reversals.

After a meeting of the Presidential Commission for Resistance to Political Extremism, Yeltsin's justice minister, Pavel Krasheninnikov, said the governmen t would soon propose tough "anti-extremism" laws to parliament, while top presidential aide Oleg Sysuyev threatened that if parliament failed to endorse the measures, Yeltsin would have to act by decree.

Not to be outdone, opposition Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told the media Tuesday that one cannot count on a successful campaign against extremism by a "sick and helpless president."

Political analysts interviewed Tuesday all agreed that xenophobia and virulent nationalism could eventually turn into a real problem for Russian society. Some analysts believe a far-right party could clear the 5 percent barrier required for Duma representation in December's elections.

Korgunyuk and fellow political scientist Sergei Kurginyan said Tuesday the situation in 1999 Russia is "very dangerous" and similar to that of Weimar Germany in the 1920s and '30s, when economic collapse resulted in the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

It was last summer, shortly before the economic crisis set in, that two prominent Jewish figures, Vladimir Gusinsky, who owns NTV, and Berezovsky, who controls ORT television, started to stress the danger of Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism as key rallying points in the upcoming political battles.

According to Sergei Kolmakov of the Politika research institute, the liberals among Moscow's ruling elite and the financial oligarchs are in a "state of anxiety" about the threat of hard-line politics, and the media reflects these confused attitudes.

In all the rhetoric, extremism is often loosely defined - offering room for politicians to apply it to their opponents.

Yevgeny Volk, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, said that authorities might even have encouraged the RNE's march in order to use it as an excuse for "tightening the screws."

"Perhaps the authorities try to activate extremist forces in order to carry out a serious blow," against their opponents, Volk said.

By associating Barkashov with Makashov - something that has been repeatedly done in Russian television reports over the past few days - such a blow can also be directed against Communists such as Zyuganov, who could be accused of "extremism" by proxy.

Kurginyan said that Barkashov, leader of a numerically marginal group, has all of a sudden become a prominent political figure because he is necessary for bigger politicians in their games.

There's a danger, analysts said, that by treating extremism as a political tool rather than a real political and social problem Russian politicians may eventually reap the grapes of wrath.

"The situation is very dangerous indeed," Korgunyuk said. "Everybody is afraid that a bomb is to explode, but where is it going to happen, nobody knows."