MOSCOW — Just ahead of presidential elections here, one of the two key Jewish communal groups is sounding the alarm about what it sees as a surge in violent crimes against minorities in Russia.
The Russian Jewish Congress issued a statement February 18 declaring that Russian law-enforcement authorities “are either incapable of controlling… or are not willing to react” to extreme nationalist groups and skinhead gangs.
“The streets of Russian cities are equally dangerous for everybody who has a pronounced non-Slavic appearance,” the group stated. “It doesn’t matter who you are: a foreign student, a diplomat, a refugee, an immigrant from the [former Soviet Union] countries or just a law-[abiding] citizen of Russia.”
The statement comes just weeks before the March 14 presidential elections, which incumbent President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win. Putin dumped his government Tuesday and promised an overhaul in national policy, a move that is being interpreted as a sign of the president’s confidence.
Despite the air of certainty surrounding the presidential vote, tensions are high in the run-up to elections, particularly after a powerful explosion ripped through a Moscow subway train on February 6, killing dozens of rush-hour commuters. Russian authorities blamed Chechen separatists.
Some observers say that for non-Russians — particularly people from the Caucasus and Central Asia — police harassment and intimidation are a fact of life in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Police regularly stop non-Russians on the street — ostensibly to check for residence documents, but often to extract bribes.
Leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress, which has been critical of Putin, say that their statement was spurred by recent events in St. Petersburg. On February 9, a group of teenagers — described in press accounts as skinheads — reportedly stabbed a 9-year-old Tajik girl to death as she was returning home from an ice rink. Two other family members were injured.
A week later, Jewish community leaders declared that a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg had been defiled. The vandals reportedly painted antisemitic slogans and swastikas on about 50 tombstones.
Nikolai Propirny, a spokesman for the Russian Jewish Congress in Moscow, said Russian authorities have been quick to downplay such incidents.
Rabbi Mendel Pewzner, chief rabbi of St. Petersburg, however, said he was satisfied with the local authorities’ response thus far to the vandalism. “Obviously, everyone wants to hope that it’s a one-time incident,” he said. “The authorities, in my opinion, are reacting properly.”
Pewzner, who is affiliated with the Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which has battled with the Jewish congress and supported Putin, said that a representative of the regional president was meeting with the Jewish community in St. Petersburg to discuss the progress of the investigation. And in general, he said, the hundred-plus nationalities in St. Petersburg live together peaceably.
The murder of the Tajik girl drew expressions of outrage from top Russian officials. But according to Propirny, that has not translated into tougher law enforcement.
“It’s on the enforcement level — local prosecutors, law enforcement officials… lack the will to pursue this, to systematically fight against crimes on the basis of national origin,” the spokesman said. “They try to call it either ‘hooliganism’ or ‘crimes committed for material gain.’”
Propirny pointed to the recent acquittal of suspects in a violent attack at an outdoor market in 2001. In that incident, 150 skinheads reportedly rampaged through an outdoor market, beating up non-Slavic vendors and shouting racist slurs.
“We want the authorities to call fascism fascism,” Propirny said. He added that the treatment of all ethnic groups is a major concern for the Russian Jewish Congress.
“For us, it’s not just a Jewish matter,” he said. “It’s a concern for our society as a whole.”