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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Time for Russia to Root Out Racism at the Top

When Petersburg Television aired a two-part talk show early this month with the intention of stirring up a little racial hatred among the masses and proving to all that, yes, even intellectual St. Petersburg is ready for an ethnic cleansing campaign, there was a lot of discussion about how far free speech in this fledgling democracy should go.

And when the show's guest of honor, Russian Nationalist Party leader Nikolai Bondarik, called on all citizens to round up every last Jew and Caucasian for deportation, human rights leaders were asking, "Should he be able to say that on television?"

Should he be able to say, "The Russians have gone to the moon; the Jews, they do nothing?" Should he be able to appeal to his audience to cleanse, by force if necessary, the streets of St. Petersburg?

Well, the answer to that is yes, he should f if free speech were truly free speech in Russia.

But, according to the Russian criminal code, free speech does not extend to the hateful bantering of extremists if their words can be taken for inciting racial hatred f a vague law, which has to date met with no real convictions of guilt. So now, human rights groups, those who fight for free speech, are planning a civil suit against Bondarik, hoping to hit him with a year in the slammer or an uncomfortable but not unbearable fine for inciting racial hatred.

Then Denis Usov, a neighborhood councilman in a St. Petersburg suburb, was placed under city arrest last week and charged with inciting racial hatred, and these same leaders cried victory. After all, Usov had been campaigning with leaflets that said, "Kill the Caucasians," and "We Will Hang All Jews!" in an attempt to start a Kosovo-like neighborhood ethnic cleansing campaign.

But they're missing the point here. There was no victory. The real culprit is still on the loose. And no one is pointing the finger at him.

Bondarik is an irrelevant character, as much as he would like to be otherwise. And Usov is even less relevant. The lead character, writer and producer in each case was the government.

The majority share holder in Petersburg Television is the city government f or more precisely, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev and his City Hall entourage. So why go after Bondarik? He's not the problem.

Extremists like Bondarik are a dime a dozen. In the States they appear daily on talk shows. The only difference here is that Bondarik, unlike his Ku Klux Klan counterparts in America, can actually read and quote Dostoevsky to prove his point.

Why shout victory when Usov, a deputy sitting on the district neighborhood council, is slapped on the wrist and has his mouth washed out with soap? He will no doubt keep his post on the district council. Nothing was accomplished here. Meanwhile, the real culprits make the great escape, leaving the babbling idiots, Bondarik and Usov, holding the bag.

Petersburg Television, formerly Channel 5, is the mouthpiece of City Hall and was re-established as such by Yakovlev in 1995. The station's editorial director is Yevgeny Lukin, former FSB spokesman and author of an anti-Semitic novel, "No Blood on the Butcher's Hands." This in itself should have those concerned about the development of human rights and democracy in this country up in arms.

But instead, everyone's going for the little guy.

It's time to make the government take a little responsibility for its actions. For starters, according to its own criminal code, it should be charged and indicted with inciting racial hatred.

Nationalist parties have, in one way or another, infiltrated many government administrations Russia-wide. These extremists are State Duma deputies, governors, mayors and the like. The extreme Russian National Unity, or RNE, is practically part and parcel of government in many regions of Russia and are often financed by budget money.

In Moscow, Duma deputy Albert Makashov was freely allowed to express his less-than-subtle views that the Jews caused last August's economic crisis. The Communist Party refused to even mildly condemn him.

In the regions the situation is reportedly worse.

In Krasnodar and Stavropol, law enforcement bodies had so intertwined themselves with the RNE that a presidential inspection was carried out. In Kostroma, local police work together with a volunteer task force of RNE members to guard the city. It has been reported that they even hold target practice together. The same holds true in Yaroslavl. In Voronezh, the volunteer guards wear swastikas and patrol the streets in conjunction with city police forces.

The banterings of extremists like Bondarik are not frightening, but the fact that his banterings are sponsored by the government should spark a bit of concern in somebody.

It seems that what these factions in government holding ties to nationalist groups want everyone to believe is that Russia is a violently racist country. While it may indeed be racist f it is not violently so. At least not yet.

St. Petersburg, for one, is most definitely not ready to involve itself in a citywide ethnic cleansing campaign, despite all the talk. True, almost 4,000 people called in to vote on the issue during the airing of the two talk shows, but these were most likely a self-selected group of people. They were not, as the show's host claimed, representative of the majority of Petersburgers.

The show got the attention, mostly, of human rights groups and nationalists. While many citizens may have happened to see the program, they didn't take to the streets and start rounding up non-Russians. Instead, they mumbled something about Bondarik being an idiot and something about Caucasians indeed being criminals, and then walked down to the market to buy fruit from the Azeri vendor, cursing under their breath the exorbitant prices those "blacks" charge.

You see, they're not interested in an ethnic cleansing campaign. They're not interested in bringing the plight of Kosovo to their front door. True, they may be racists f but, if so, they are passive racists.

What do they need any more violence for? Many of them have already lived through the horrors of World War II. Many of them have watched the fighting in Chechnya and Dagestan come a bit too close to home. All of them have dealt with economic crisis after economic crisis. Surviving is enough to deal with for now.

Human rights groups would do better to drive right to the source of the problem instead of trying to remedy the symptoms, which will always keep recurring as long as the government is feeding them.

There is no time like the present. The storm is brewing now in Dagestan, and this will be yet another golden opportunity for nationalists with governmental funding to create a false sense of urgency to rid the country of its ethnic minorities.

Jen Tracy is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.