Khotkovo is a small town in Russia, 60 kilometers (37 miles)
northeast of Moscow. The current mayor, Rita Tikhomirova, as is fitting
for a government official, belongs to Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia.
With parliamentary elections coming up on Dec. 4, United Russia has
certainly put up its share of campaign posters in Khotkovo. Using
slogans pledging to "build" and "preserve," it promises prosperity and
stability throughout the country.
Khotkovo itself would hardly deserve a mention, if it hadn't made a
name for itself last year as Russia's first "foreigner-free" city. Here,
as in all of Russia, workers from Central Asia did the dirty and
low-paid jobs, working for the city sweeping courtyards and shoveling
snow -- until last fall, when young men from Tajikistan stabbed a drunk
Russian to death during a fight. Furious residents blockaded the city's
main street and demanded the deportation of all foreigners.
That same night, the mayor expelled several hundred Tajiks, including
women and children, from the city. They'd barely left town before a mob
set fire to their residences. Half-horrified, half-impressed, Moscow's
newspapers spread the news of the newly "white" and "pure" city.
"Russia for Russians" -- this slogan is making its way from Moscow to
the Russian Far East. Polls show 60 percent of the population
supporting the sentiment, a result that must be unsettling for the
Kremlin, since it will certainly influence Sunday's vote.
This is the sixth time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that
Russians will elect their representatives to the State Duma, the
country's lower house of parliament. The Organization for Security and
Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called Russia's last elections, in
December 2007, "unfair." This time, the assessment isn't likely to be
any more favorable.
The Kremlin has exerted pressure on governors, electoral commissions
and the media in the run-up to the election to make sure United Russia
will once again receive a majority of votes. The election results are
already clear. In Volgograd, the city government enlisted priests to see
to it that the city's Orthodox Christians vote for Putin's party. "You
know all about psychology, after all," as one official put it.
Russia's strongman Vladimir Putin has also resorted to psychological
pressure. In his last speech in front of the current State Duma, he
called on the opposition not to stir up unrest around the elections,
saying that stability in the country was the most important thing. The
opposition, Putin added, is simply there "so that the governing party
can lead more decisively and show society the right path."
It sounded like a threat. Putin and Dmitry Medvedev -- who holds the
country's presidency for another five months, but is also United
Russia's top candidate in the upcoming election -- have suffered
considerable losses in popularity. Putin was even booed at a
martial-arts event last week. Support for United Russia, which received
64 percent of the vote four years ago, currently stands at just 40
percent. Unpublished polls show dramatic drops in approval ratings in
some regions, with a 20 percent approval rating in Moscow and St.
Petersburg, and even less in the exclave of Kaliningrad. Still, the
Kremlin is determined to surpass the symbolic 50 percent mark.
Non-Russians as Scapegoats
Meanwhile, non-Russians serve as scapegoats for anything and everything going wrong in the country. The Russian
government continues to pump massive subsidies into regions on the
geographical fringes of its territory, for example, sending the
equivalent of several billion euros to the northern Caucasus alone,
while funds are lacking for education and healthcare in the center of
the country. At the same time, more and more impoverished people from
the Caucasus, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are pouring into Russia's major
cities, where they are trying to make a living. Nationalists complain
that the Russian people, the "titular nation," are increasingly put at a
If elections in Russia were allowed to unfold freely and fairly,
those standing to gain would not be the politicians generally favored by
the West or free-market liberals such as former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.
The real gains would belong to the radical nationalists. "A revolution
in Russia wouldn't be orange and democratic, as it was in Ukraine in
2004, but brown," says Nemtsov, referring to the symbolic color of the
Looking to halt United Russia's slipping popularity and to take the
wind out of the extreme right's sails, Putin has fashioned a nationalist
rhetoric for his party this election season as well as for other
parties controlled by the Kremlin.
Alexander Torshin, deputy chairman of the Federation Council of
Russia, the upper house of parliament, and a major player within United
Russia, has threatened to send immigrants who don't behave agreeably to
the "monkey house," a vernacular term for the police station cell used
to hold detainees immediately after arrest.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia,
which is actually nationalist in its stance, is using the "Russia for
Russians" slogan to drum up support for an end to the billions in
subsidies to the Caucasus. Zhirinovsky, who also serves as vice chairman
of the State Duma, distributed 12 million copies of a brochure in which
he castigates the supposedly anti-Russian stance of the current
government, which "takes money from the pocket of the working Ivan and
gives it to the bandit Mohammed, who cuts Ivan up in pieces and buys
himself a third Mercedes."
The country's public prosecutors, usually eager to prosecute Kremlin
detractors on charges of "extremism," have left Zhirinovsky alone since
he and his party, founded by the KGB in the 1990s, are actually working
for the benefit of the Kremlin. The idea is that the experienced
populist will collect the right-wing protest vote, then, once back in
office, he will continue to vote obediently in favor of the Kremlin's
bills, as he has for the past two decades.
It's a dangerous game. If the seed sowed by the extreme right-wing
bears fruit, Russia -- as a multi-ethnic state with over 15 million
Muslims and more than 100 different ethnic groups -- is in danger of
eroding. At the same time, the country's economy has come to depend on
cheap labor provided by migrant workers as its own population shrinks.
leader of Russia's Communist Party, is similarly making a name for
himself as the "national liberation struggle flares up." His plan to
reinstate ethnic affiliations in Russian passports has the support of 48
percent of the population. The Soviets, too, used this "nationality"
category to facilitate their discrimination against Jews, Chechens and
ethnic Germans in Russia.
'I Only Rent to Russians'
This across-the-board lurch to the right even surprises Dmitry Rogozin.
In 2005, Rogozin, then Russia's ambassador to NATO, was barred from
elections because of his agitation against immigrants. Now, he's very
much officially part of the process, bringing in right-wing votes for
United Russia. "Back then, I was seen as a terrible nationalist. Now, my
views are more liberal than most," he says.
Rogozin has tapped into something many Russians are feeling.
Apartment-building doors in Moscow bear signs that read, "I only rent to
Russians." One celebrity hairdresser wants to move her daughter to a
different preschool because there is a Chechen child in the daughter's
playgroup. And when Brazilian soccer player Roberto Carlos takes the
field with Anzhi Makhachkala, a Russian Premier League team, fans from the opposing team throw bananas onto the field.
Russia is going through the often-painful process of developing into a
nation-state that its Western European neighbors went through centuries
ago. The country is torn between newly awakened nationalism and a
centuries-old claim to an identity as a multi-ethnic empire.
'Pack of Rogues'
A new generation of activists is carrying these radical ideas into
mainstream society. No one has achieved greater popularity than lawyer
and blogger Alexey Navalny, a self-proclaimed "national democrat," who
uses his website to denounce corruption and nepotism among high-level
government officials. The charismatic Navalny, 35, has quickly become
the Kremlin detractors' new hope. One online poll asking who should
serve as Moscow's next mayor showed him in first place.
Navalny didn't shy away from linking himself with right-wing
extremist organizations at the nationalist "Russian March" in Moscow in
early November. "Down with United Russia!" was his greeting to the crowd
at the mass demonstration. "We must annihilate this pack of rogues who
have been drinking our blood," he continued. In response, the right-wing
crowd chanted, "Putin on trial!"
That was a warning to Russia's future president. Putin may still
control the country's elections, and he may well be able to reclaim his
spot in the Kremlin in May. But the nationalist wave he's so happily
riding may one day wash him away.
In: World News
Tags: Russia, ussr, history, communist, socialist, nationalist, racism, islam, muslim, radical
Location: Moscow, Moscow City, Russia (load item map)
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