Russia is becoming an increasingly scary place. Ask Marat Gelman, whose gallery made the mistake of hosting a show by a Georgian artist at a time when Georgians are the subject of official disapproval. Last week the gallery was wrecked by 10 masked men--"not vandals, nor hooligans from the street, but highly professional and experienced militants who came to do their job," says Gelman, who was badly beaten. Or ask art historian and curator Aleksandr Panov, attacked (but not robbed) by thugs days after he publicly condemned the attack on Gelman. Or ask ordinary Georgians who, increasingly, have been the victims of police extortion and skinhead attacks, among them 24-year-old carwash supervisor Irakly Bukiya. "We immigrants have always been second-class people in Russia," says Bukiya, who knew better than to call the police last week after he was beaten up in the Moscow Metro. "I know that the state is on the side of corrupt police and the skinheads."
Anti-immigrant attacks, a violent backlash against critical intellectuals--Russia seems to be getting uglier and uglier. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin is defiant. Meeting with European leaders in Finland, he brooked no lectures. When EU ministers raised questions about corruption in his country, he noted that " 'mafia' is not a Russian word." As for Russia's fast-deteriorating human-rights situation and the recent murder of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, he hinted that her death may have been organized by those wishing to discredit the Kremlin.
Though he initially remained mum about the wave of anti-Georgian violence sweeping the country, Putin has since condemned it. Yet he himself seems to be embracing an increasingly nationalist line. Illegal immigrants and "ethnic gangs" have "no place" in a "law-abiding country," Putin said earlier this year. Recently he called for ethnic Russians to be given a fixed quota of places in the country's open-air produce markets--traditionally controlled by immigrants from the Caucasus--in order to "protect the interests of the native Russian population." That truculent rhetoric has not gone unnoticed. The president's tone has given a "clear sign to bureaucrats and security services," says Svetlana Ganushkina, head of the NGO Civil Assistance. "Putin's words inspire nationalist movements growing across Russia."
Racism is hardly new in Russia. But never in modern times has it been sanctioned at such a high level of government. More than a thousand Georgians have been deported during the past month, says Vladimir Khomeriki, president of the Congress of Ethnic Associations of Russia, who claims that almost every Georgian-owned business has been visited by tax police or municipal inspectors. Police checks on people with non-Slavic features have become more frequent, as have violent attacks, according to Human Rights Watch, which has been unable to compile hard numbers because its activities were briefly suspended under new rules governing foreign NGOs. Last year some 300,000 people were fined for immigration violations in Moscow alone. This year, according to Civil Assistance, numbers are many times higher. Bukiya says he was beaten by police as well as skinheads in the past month: "They make us live as though it were wartime, never coming out of our bomb shelters."
No group is a better barometer of the new mood than the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, a nationalist organization that claims to be the most powerful NGO in Russia with 20,000 members and branches in 15 regions. It emerged last year after sponsoring protests in support of Aleksandra Ivannikova, a Russian woman who killed an Armenian taxi driver who she claimed tried to rape her. Its leader, Aleksandr Potkin, is a dapper 30-year-old lawyer who goes by the pseudonym Aleksandr Belov--a name derived from the Russian word for "white." He became a national media figure in October after anti-immigrant riots broke out in the northern Russian town of Kondoponga, forcing dozens of non-Russians to flee for their lives. "Guys from the Caucusus beat and raped girls at the disco," Belov complained on national television from Kondoponga in the aftermath of the riots, which left non-Russian-owned restaurants and businesses sacked and burned. "The people of Kondoponga expelled criminals from their midst."
It's not clear what role Belov's group may have played in the violence, but his creed is simple. "Russia for Russians!" he told NEWSWEEK during an interview at a stylish Moscow café. "Russia doesn't need immigrants for work. Russians can do everything without any foreigners. We don't need them here." He seems to nurse a particular grudge against migrants from Tajikistan. "They spread infections and rape Russian girls," he claims, as well as import the heroin that "has killed 100,000 Russians." Belov says he enjoys wide support among Russians, including "successful middle managers from companies like Gazprom, students and even journalists."
That's probably fanciful. But this week will bring a major test as nationalists gather to celebrate Russia's Day of National Unity on Nov. 4. "It will be our day," says Belov. "There will be five to ten thousand of our members on the streets of Moscow!" Meanwhile, Belov was recently appointed as an assistant to Duma deputy Andrey Savelyev of the nationalist Rodina faction and claims senior police and Security Service officers among his supporters.
All this alarms people like Gelman, a prominent political analyst as well as an art dealer, who sees neo-nationalism entering the mainstream. "Things have changed tremendously in Russia in the last half year," he says. "Nationalists feel that the government is fully on their side, that their moment has come. They think that public opinion, the courts and the police all support them." If the rising tide of nationalism isn't stopped before next spring, in advance of the parliamentary election campaign, Gelman warns, "these groups will begin their campaigns with ratings that are worryingly high."
Gelman knows the dangers of playing the nationalism card all too well. During the last elections, in 2003, he was a key adviser to a group of pro-Kremlin "political technologists," as he calls them, who set up a pseudo-opposition party designed to siphon antigovernment protest votes away from the large Communist Party. Its name was Rodina, or the Motherland, and its message was pure nationalism. The ploy worked all too well. Rodina picked up 9.7 percent of the vote--transforming it from a Potemkin opposition party into a genuine threat. Rodina's bumptious leader, Dmitry Rogozin, subsequently fought off the efforts of Putin's men to rein the party in and struck out on his own--only to be slapped down when Rodina was banned from running in Moscow's municipal elections last year.
The question now is the degree to which the Kremlin seeks to turn the potent force of political nationalism to its advantage, particularly with an eye to dominating the 2007 Duma elections. They are important in themselves--but especially so next year, because it is this Duma that will set the agenda for Putin's anointed successor in 2008. For now, the president seems to be trying to play both ends at once. Last week he told television viewers in a nationwide phone-in that he was "pained" to speak of extremism in Russia, and said it must be "dealt with swiftly and decisively." At the same time, his championing of the interests of "ethnic Russians" and his defiantly pro-Russian foreign policy are an obvious hit with voters and a major factor in his 80 percent approval rating.
There's nothing anti-Putin in the new nationalism, explains Georgia-born novelist Grigory Chkhartishvili, better known by his pen name, Boris Akunin. To the contrary, "Putin wants to improve his popularity by playing xenophobic games. You can be sure that the [Nov. 4] march of Russian chauvinists will carry portraits of Putin." The real danger, warns Chkhartishvili, is that nationalism has a way of getting out of hand. "If the government don't distance themselves from Russian nationalism in the near future," he says, "they won't be able to control it."
Anna Politkovskaya may be the most visible victim of what the beaten art critic Aleksandr Panov calls "a new climate of barbarism." Not long before her death her name was posted on a list of "enemies of Russia" compiled by Nikolai Kuryenovich, a Duma deputy from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party and member of the Russian Parliament's security committee. Gelman's name was also on the list. Kuryenovich, who denies involvement in either assault, says that the time has come for Russians to "rise up from our knees" and to "free Russia of foreign occupiers."
Perhaps it's small wonder that Politkovskaya's killers felt emboldened to strike down an "enemy of Russia," especially after Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (a favorite of Putin) also made public threats against her. The latest leads in the case suggest that her death may have been organized by associates of a Russian Special Forces officer, OMON police Lt. Sergey Lapin, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last March after a report by Politkovskaya revealed his role in the murder of up to a dozen Chechen civilians in January 2001. Two other police officers implicated in the murders, Maj. Aleksandr Prilepin and Lt. Col. Valery Minin, had allegedly earlier threatened to kill Politkovskaya before going into hiding. But the pair were recently spotted in their hometown of Nizhnevartovsk, in the Khanty-Mansisk region of Siberia, according to a source at the Russian federal prosecutor's office not authorized to speak on the record, and are "leading suspects" in the murder.
As Russia revels in its oil wealth and newfound confidence--after years of post-imperial poverty and humiliation--it's only natural that a revived national pride should follow. Putin's made very sure that he, and no one else, is the focus and beneficiary of that national revival. So why the compulsion to play the nationalist game? Ordinary Russians are enjoying a stability and prosperity not seen in a generation. With their power, money and popularity, the country's leaders shouldn't feel the need to further bolster their standing by persecuting Georgians or expelling immigrants. But instead, the Kremlin has chosen to make nationalism the currency of Russian politics. It could prove a dangerous weapon.