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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Toasts to Tolerance as a Teenager Dies

MTThree representatives of the Chukchi, foreground, joining about 80 other nationalities for a meal in the city government building on Novy Arbat on Thursday.
Some 80 people from different ethnic groups and nationalities sat down to a sumptuous meal at City Hall on Thursday in an attempt to set a new world record and to celebrate the United Nation's International Day for Tolerance.

But as they toasted friendship between peoples, news came that an Armenian teenager had been battered to death in the Moscow region.

Narek Kocharyan, 15, was assaulted Saturday by a group of young men who beat him, stabbed him several times and strangled him, the Union of Armenians in Russia said Thursday.

A bandanna decorated with a skull and crossbones found at the scene suggested that Kocharyan's attackers belonged to an ultranationalist group, the Union of Armenians in Russia said in a statement posted on its web site. It also complained that law enforcement officials were investigating the killing as a simple case of manslaughter rather than a hate crime.

"Our esteemed guardians of law and order believe the killing was inadvertent after a man was repeatedly kicked in the head, strangled and stabbed," the statement said. "And not a word about a racial motive for the attack."

Critics say the government's response to rising extremism has been inadequate.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev, speaking before the State Duma on Wednesday, said only six criminal cases related to extremism had gone to court in 2005.

Police and prosecutors routinely disregard racial motives when investigating such crimes because they can be difficult to prove in court.

Vladimir Slutsker, deputy chairman of a joint commission on nationalities policy affiliated with the Federation Council, said Thursday that the current law on extremism was adequate for dealing with "any manifestation of ethnic tension and xenophobia."

The problem, Slutsker said, is that law enforcement avoids enforcing the law. "This is the most direct path to the disintegration of this country," he said.

The Sova think tank says 39 people have died in hate crimes this year, 28 of them in Moscow, and more than 300 people have been injured.

The vast majority of the attacks were carried out by skinheads, Sova's director Galina Kozhevnikova said.

Back at City Hall, the organizers of the record attempt did their best to maintain a festive atmosphere.

State Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky was the guest speaker at the banquet, which was organized by the Moscow Association of Entrepreneurs. The event was designed to break the world record for the most ethnic groups seated around a dinner table, as well as to highlight Moscow's multiethnic population.

Zhirinovsky was a somewhat surprising choice, since his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has often been accused of inciting racial hatred, but the politician, a skilled chameleon, was on his best behavior. When asked about immigration policy, he said: "Anyone who wants to come to Russia can come."

Zhirinovsky also apologized to Aslanbek Aslakhanov for comments he made previously about Chechens. Aslakhanov, an ethnic Chechen, advises President Vladimir Putin on ethnic relations. Zhirinovsky blamed his Soviet education. "We weren't taught that they were also citizens."

With the tables piled high with food and drink, the event had a Soviet feel to it as people from a host of countries and ethnic backgrounds raised their glasses and toasted interethnic harmony.

The event was first held in Sweden in 2002, when 29 different nationalities shared a sauna together in the town of Halmstaad and set a world record. Last year, Moscow broke the record with representatives of 57 ethnic groups and nationalities gathered around a table.

The lighthearted tone of the event could not conceal participants' concern about the increasing frequency of hate crimes in this country.

"Things have gotten worse," said organizer Oleg Goryunov, who once built a giant pyramid out of bottle caps to get into the Guinness Book of Records. "Last year we had better relations with Georgia."

Guests bemoaned the lost era of Soviet druzhba narodov, or friendship between peoples.

Ethnic harmony under the Soviets "was not a toy," Aslakhanov said. "It was real. If someone got attacked it was a state of emergency, because we were all together."

Now, he said, "it happens every day."

"My wife is Russian. I fear for my child growing up half-black, half-white," said one of the guests, Ugandan Ambassador Sam Barteka Sakajja.

"Enough is enough. My color does not matter. It is what is in my brain," he said. "I appeal to Russia's youth to grow up and forget racism."