Middle Eastern Russia?
In the mid 90s we used to worry about Weimar Russia. We stopped when it became clear that unlike Yeltzin's Russia, Putin's one no longer bore any resemblance to the free wheeling Weimar republic. Indeed, it seemes to resemble more and more autocratic China. It is worse than that, argues Aleksandr Verkhovskiy in his new book:
On the one hand, the SOVA Analytic Center specialist says, xenophobic attitudes increasingly infects Russian ethno-nationalism because Putin and other senior leaders have appeared to sanction growing hostility among many ethnic Russians toward many minorities, especially in the wake of the Kondopoga riots of a year ago.
And on the other, Russian ethno-nationalism itself now affects groups and parties across virtually the entire political spectrum, again including United Russia and others close to Putin, rather than being confined as they were for most of the 1990 to marginal individuals and groups with little or no chance of coming to power.
Consequently, and to a certain extent in ways that parallel his exploitation of xenophobic attitudes against Chechens, Putin is again serving as the midwife of a phenomenon which may mean future Russian leaders will have to defer to this trend even more than he has.
Putin encouraged the rise of an ethnocentric-civilizational and, of course, antisemitic movement and then directed its ire against the West. Now he is losing control over the tiger he encouraged. Those who have forgotten what aroused tigers do need only recall the tragic scenes which enfolded in the San Francisco zoo on Christmas day.
But forget analogies. Here are some real figures:
In the first 11 months of 2007, racist or skinhead violence in Russia increased by 19 percent over the same period in 2006, resulting in 57 members of ethnic minorities being stabbed to death and at least 546 attacked, according to the SOVA Center.
State figures do not count the number of isolated ultranationalist groups in the country, but human rights groups, including the independent Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, reported 50,000 individual extreme nationalists in 2005, compared with a few dozen in the early 1990s.
Among the biggest extremist groups are the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, Moscow Hammer Skin, Skin Legion, and United Brigades 88, a coded reference to Heil Hitler, as the double “8” refers to “H,” the eighth letter of the alphabet. Their memberships include up to 10,000 in the Russian capital and some 15,000 in St. Petersburg, with hundreds in smaller cities.
If the numbers are not bad enough, Nadezhda Pitulova reports that we are dealing with A Better Class of Fascists:
“In the past two or three years, the social structure of active neo-Nazi groups has changed significantly. Before they were coming from troubled families, while now they’re students at prestigious universities and sons of engineers, service members, police officers,” said Galina Kozhevnikova, an analyst at the SOVA Center think tank, which tracks extremist activity.
Such activity is on the rise in Russia, and the changing background of the extremists roughly mirrors changes in the broader society, as the average wage has nearly tripled, confounding the notion that increased poverty and deprivation fuel racism.
“Being part of the neo-Nazi movement can guarantee lifelong opportunities. They can count on employment, PR, and legal and financial support in prison,” Kozhevnikova said.
Yes, it is all painfully reminiscent of the rise of Islamism in the Middle East. A winning formula will always be copied. Middle Eastern autocrats (Mubarak, Assad, Abdallah, etc.) have been riding the Islamist tiger for decades. Putin has taken some pages from their book. Let us not forget that Russian Orthodoxy has a center role in the new civilizational narrative. Soon, Westerners governments or NGOs complaining about Russian Human Rights (or their lack thereof) will be warned that Orthodox white supremacists constitute the only real alternative to their own autocratic rule. Given enough time to do their worst, it may just end up being the truth.
Then, pity the Russians and all of us.