MOSCOW, June 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) — Eduard Sardaryan will never forget the day last year when he was told his teenage son had been murdered by a group of youths on a suburban train. He touches a photograph, now edged with black ribbon, of a smiling Artur. He was 19 years old when he died.
“My son was sitting on the train. [He] was just sitting on the train, minding his own business. And this man comes up behind him and starts hitting him, deliberately. He attacks him with a knife. He stabs him five times, and three of the stab wounds are fatal,” Sardaryan says.
On June 1, Roman Polusmyak was acquitted of the murder although he is still serving time in prison for attacks on Daghestani nationals living in Russia. The identity of the second suspect has not been established.
According to the victim’s lawyer, during the attack a group of young men were chanting “Glory to Russia” and “Long live Russia” before pulling the emergency cord and jumping off the train.
A June 6 report by a U.S. rights watchdog, Human Rights First, says that hate crimes are on the rise in many parts of Europe, including Russia.
Hate Crimes Rising
Rights groups say violence against ethnic minorities living in Russia, in particular those from the Caucasus and Central Asia, are becoming more frequent. A report released by the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights this week showed that there were 120 attacks “of a xenophobic nature” committed in Russia in the first half of this year, in which 31 people were killed. In 2004, the report says, there were seven fatal attacks during the same period; in 2005, there were 10; and in 2006, 17.
The report notes that the majority of attacks are aimed at people from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and countries in Africa.
Galina Kozhevnikova, an expert at the SOVA Center, which monitors racism and xenophobia in Russia, says there are many different reasons for the attacks.
“They used to cite social problems as the primary cause, but now those are already becoming secondary. The main reason now is the almost complete impunity for radical forces, and those people who carry out these violent attacks,” Kozhevnikova says.
“And then there are those who advocate hate crimes, propagandists. There are hundreds of these types of crimes carried out — last year about 500 people suffered these attacks, and there have only been a few sentences. [Last year] there were 33 sentences handed down.”
Role Of Authorities
In his annual address to the nation last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to tackle the growing number of attacks on ethnic groups living in Russia.
But Kozhevnikova says the authorities in fact play a key role in the country’s increasingly xenophobic attitude.
“More and more this is becoming a problem that is reaching the level of government. That’s to say that last autumn, for the first time, the government openly supported discriminatory measures against ethnic Georgians living in Russia,” Kozhevnikova says.
“A whole series of discriminatory measures were taken, including banning [non-Russians] from working in markets. This is politics of an openly discriminating nature, and it sanctions [the actions of] radical forces.”
Last year, Russia was heavily criticized for deporting thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Russia and canceling flights between the two countries. The move came after Georgian authorities detained four Russian diplomats on spying charges.
A month later, the town of Kondopoga in northwestern Russia was the scene of violent riots between local Russian and ethnic Chechens working in the area.
On the dingy seventh floor of Moscow’s Olympic complex — once the centerpiece of the 1980 Olympic Games, but now a huge warehouse selling Chinese goods — a tiny organization offers advice and legal assistance to migrants from Central Asia.
On the wall, there is a poster, which reads: “Tajiks in Russia: Today, in 90 percent of cases, the laws of the Russian Federation do not protect migrant workers.”
Manzura Karimova, a lawyer at the Migration and Law Center, says the office receives about 100 calls a month, mostly from Tajiks and Uzbeks, who have been beaten up or had their documents confiscated.
They also get calls about racist attacks and murders. In April, a Tajik street cleaner died after he was stabbed 35 times on a Moscow street. Video footage from a surveillance camera showed two young men with shaven heads and laced-up, army-style boots carrying out the murder.
“I get phone calls to say: ‘I’ve been beaten up by a police officer, I want to make a complaint.’ And when I see this and hear this and compare it [to my own situation], of course I am concerned. I’m concerned because I have two children, two sons, they aren’t Russian nationals, they have dark skin and I get scared every time my [elder] son comes home late. Because when you are always reading that skinheads have killed someone else — well, it makes me really afraid for my son,” Karimova says.
Earlier this year, a jury in St. Petersburg cleared a young man of murder charges in the fatal stabbing of a nine-year-old Tajik girl, finding him guilty instead of “hooliganism.”
Kovezhenikova says the situation can only change if authorities start to accept that racist crimes exist.
“If the police start arresting [the perpetrators of these crimes] and putting them in prison, then the wave of crimes will start to fall. But it goes without saying that society takes a dim view of these sentences because they still deny the existence of racist crimes. Little by little, our law-enforcement agencies are beginning to consider crimes of this nature,” Kovezhenikova says.
Many of the attacks are carried out by skinheads, many of whom advocate the expulsion of non-Russian nationals. The Moscow Human Rights Group estimates that there are some 70,000 skinheads in Russia.