Putin taps into a growing anti-minority fervor
Alexander Belov is leader and chief ideologist of the unabashedly racist, street-based Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). But he's no fringe character. In fact, his group is Russia's fastest-growing political sensation.
Critics have long alleged that DPNI is a Kremlin creation, designed to redirect popular dissatisfaction toward ethnic scapegoats.
Still, many Russians were surprised last week when President Vladimir Putin took a page straight out of Mr. Belov's book.
In the midst of a political standoff with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Mr. Putin authorized a crackdown on Georgian-owned businesses, called for tougher curbs on immigration, and said non-ethnic Russians should be prevented from operating in the marketplaces.
"What Putin said is exactly what Belov has been saying; the main theme is Russia for the Russians," says Alla Gerber, president of the Russian Holocaust Foundation, a human rights group.
Experts warn that the Kremlin is moving into a political minefield that has been primed and put on hair trigger by Belov and his rapidly-growing DPNI.
In late August, six days of rioting in the northern town of Kondopoga left at least three people dead and forced hundreds of Caucasians – dark-skinned people from the former Soviet Caucasus region – to flee.
Similar upheavals have been reported over the past six months hitting far-flung Russian towns in Saratov, Chita, Rostov, Astrakhan, and Irkutsk regions.
And a survey conducted last month by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that 57 percent of Russians believe that Kondopoga-like riots could break out in their town. In a poll by the independent Levada Center last week, 52 percent said they favor declaring Russia "the Russian people's state," with restrictions on non-ethnic Russians.
"There is a social explosion waiting to happen in Russia, with many potential Kondopogas," says Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy head of the Sova Center in Moscow, which monitors hate crimes. "Over and over again lately you have tensions in some town, then Belov shows up and tells people they're being terrorized by Caucasians, and the violence begins."
"Our authorities have been manipulating this movement, thinking they can channel peoples' resentments against ethnic minorities instead of the powers that be," says Ms. Kozhevnikova. "They think they can control it. But it's too big, too dangerous to be managed."
But Belov insists that the Kremlin has finally understood "the real situation" in the country. "The president has made the right conclusions and is taking the right steps," he says in an interview. "Russians are the most discriminated-against group in Russia. We help them to find their voice."
Last week Putin echoed Belov's mantra that Russians are being "terrorized" by gangs of "criminals" from formerly Soviet Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia's own southern republics.
"[We must] protect the interests of Russian manufacturers and Russia's native population," he said. "The indignation of citizens is right," Putin added, lashing out at criminal gangs, some with an "ethnic hue," that allegedly control Russia's local farmers' markets.
The actions of Moscow police last week underscored that point by swooping down on casinos, restaurants, and other businesses owned by ethnic Georgians (many of them Russian citizens) and shut down dozens, citing tax, sanitary, and alcohol violations.
A planeload of 132 "illegal immigrants" was dispatched to Georgia last Friday, but a second plane carrying 150 deportees was turned back by Georgian authorities on Monday.
"We really hope that these outrageous violations of human rights of individuals, based on their ethnicity, will cease," said Georgia's President Mikhael Saakashvili. "This is totally unacceptable in the 21st century."
Russia's relations with Georgia have been deteriorating since the pro-democracy "Rose Revolution" three years ago brought the West-leaning Mr. Saakashvili, pledging to bring his little country into NATO by 2009, to power.
Last week, Georgia released four Russian military personnel it had accused of spying, but Moscow has responded by escalating the pressure on Georgia and Georgians.
About a million Georgian expatriates live in Russia, and authorities claim 300,000 of them are working in the country illegally. Last week, Russia stopped issuing visas, and cut off all transport and postal connections between the two countries. Russian authorities have begun gathering lists of schoolchildren with Georgian-sounding names, triggering a wave of fear.
"Many parents are afraid to send their children to school, or even let them go outside," says Anna Kerezalidze, director of School No. 1331 in Moscow, which has many Caucasian pupils.
"Even some who are Russian citizens are asking to withdraw their kids from school, and talk of leaving the country."
Several prominent intellectuals with Georgian roots, such as famous detective novelist Grigory Chkhartishvili, have found themselves facing sudden tax audits and other kinds of official harassment.
"It is no longer safe to be a dark-haired person in Russia," says Mr. Chkhartishvili, better known by his pen name, Boris Akunin. "What's happening to Georgians today is ethnic cleansing. The Russian state is sick with the virus of xenophobia."
Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, creator of several prominent Moscow monuments, was accused on Friday by the Russian Duma's Audit Chamber of "misappropriating" 2.1 million rubles ($78,000) from the Russian Arts Academy that he heads.
"This is not really hard for me, as a public figure, to endure," says Mr. Akunin.
"But what about the thousands of people whose lives the newspapers don't cover?"