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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Skinhead Bill a Long Time Coming

MTSkinheads rallying near McDonald's on April 10 to protest the import of U.S. poultry.
The Justice Ministry has only one thing to say about President Vladimir Putin's announcement that legislation aimed at cracking down on racial violence will be sent to parliament.

It's about time.

In early 1999, when Putin was head of the Federal Security Service, the ministry noticed an alarming growth in racism among teenagers and drew up an anti-extremism bill for the State Duma.

Communists and their supporters, who at the time dominated the Duma, quickly dumped the bill, fearing it would somehow be used against them once they passed it.

The new Duma with a pro-Kremlin majority fished the bill out of the scrap heap last year but, faced with the need to update it to comply with new related legislation, sent it back to the government for reworking and soon forgot about it.

"The bill was not an issue, and the Communists were strongly against it," said Sergei Nikolin, the Justice Ministry's top official for state security and law enforcement legislation.

"Now the situation has changed. The president has shown his interest," he said in an interview.

Putin may have had little choice but to pull the Justice Ministry's bill out of legislative limbo and declare in his state of the nation address Thursday that the Cabinet would soon submit it to the Duma.

The embassies of about a dozen countries had sounded the alarm bell in the week before his speech, responding to a rash of skinhead threats and attacks over the previous two months.

But some Duma deputies and analysts said there is little need for such a bill; existing laws already allow tough charges to be brought against skinheads and others responsible for racial violence. The problem in enforcing the laws lies in an ineffective police force and a lax court system, they said.

Despite Putin's comments last week, he had not completely forgotten about the Justice Ministry's anti-extremism bill. Earlier this year, he asked the ministry to rework the bill and submit it to the presidential administration for approval before being sent to the Duma again.

But the legislation got stuck once again, this time in the presidential administration.

Justice Minister Yury Chaika said shortly after Putin's address that the bill would allow charges to be brought against both attackers and the parties deemed as having inspired them.

Nikolin said the bill bans groups, parties and movements whose activities or remarks incite national or religious hatred. The bill also allows the prosecution of ultra-nationalist organizations and their members who remain active after being banned.

He was reluctant to give further details, saying it may be undergoing a drastic revision at the hands of the presidential administration.

Experts said that violence committed by skinheads and anti-extremism legislation are two separate issues. They said racially motivated attacks can only be averted by jailing offenders on a charge of a hate crime rather than hooliganism, as is usually the case now.

"Racially motivated crimes are usually combined with other crimes, which judges usually pick as the main charge when they announce a verdict," Pavel Krasheninnikov, a former justice minister and the head of the Duma's legislative committee, said in an interview.

"It is important to have anti-extremism legislation, but it is wrong to say that its absence gives us no instruments to fight against extremists," Krasheninnikov said.

Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said law enforcement agencies also must be held more accountable.

"[Further violence] can be avoided only by putting constant pressure on law enforcement," he said. "The system just will not work without a firm hand."

A number of Western countries, including Germany, Sweden and the United States, have met success in preventing and fighting hate crimes by holding various counseling programs for offenders. One such program has offenders sitting face to face with members of the groups they dislike.

But such practices are unrealistic for Russia, which needs to spend its limited funds on more pressing issues than counseling, Krasheninnikov said.

Moreover, gathering a group to listen to a counselor would be met with strong suspicion, he said.

"After 70 years of Communist rule the Russian people are genetically opposed to any kind of propaganda," he said.

Unlike most European countries, which passed anti-Nazi and anti-racism laws after World War II to protect ethnic minorities, the Soviet Union did not see any need to adopt such legislation -- especially since the country lost some 27 million lives in fighting Nazi Germany.

"We thought that we would remain immune to the problem forever," Krasheninnikov said.

But nationalist sentiments have been on the rise since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some experts say that Russian authorities boosted skinhead activity during the two Chechen campaigns with their impassioned calls for nationalism.

Ryabov said that despite the racially motivated attacks, the majority of the population remains tolerant to hate-related violence and prefers to blame Azeris, Chechens and other people from the Caucasus for high crime rates.

Lawmakers as recently as Wednesday refused to put the anti-extremism bill on the Duma agenda, apparently still fearing that one day it would become a tool their opponents could use against them.

"There is a common apprehension that the law may be used by one political force against another," Ryabov said.