It started out as geopolitical bullying, with the Kremlin applying an economic headlock to pressure an obstreperous little neighbor, Georgia, to return to Moscow’s fold. But a related campaign against “Georgian interests” in Russia, involving mass arrests of alleged illegal immigrants and a crackdown on Georgian-owned businesses, has dangerously fuelled xenophobia in Russia’s streets and buoyed the country’s rising neo-fascist movement.
President Vladimir Putin personally triggered the anti-Georgian frenzy by complaining, in a televised meeting, that non-Slavs from the Caucasus region dominate farmer’s markets in most cities, incurring the wrath of native Russians.
“The indignation of citizens is right,” Putin said. “(We must) protect the interests of Russian manufacturers and Russia’s native population.” Putin may have been trying to gather support for his tough policy against Georgia, which includes a complete cutoff of trade, transport and even postal links. But in targeting Georgian businesses, he handed a gift to the outright racist Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which calls for expelling all non-Slavs from Russian cities, whether they are Russian citizens or not.
Though Slavs make up about 80 percent of the population, there are millions of darker-skinned citizens from Russia’s north Caucasus, Volga regions and Siberia. Added to that are an estimated 10 million “guest workers” from former Soviet central Asia and Caucasus countries. There are about 1 million Georgians working in Russia, sending home some $2 billion annually, a major component of Georgia’s GDP.
Hatred of non-Slavs is a combustible political issue in Russia. “Russians are the most discriminated-against group in Russia, and we help them to find their voice,” says Alexander Belov, chief ideologue of DPNI, Russia’s fastest-growing grassroots organization. Lately many Russians have been mobilizing, with Belov’s encouragement.
Six days of rioting in the northern town of Kondopoga in late August left at least three people dead and forced hundreds of Caucasians to flee. “The local people want them to go back where they came from,” says Belov. “That’s democracy. The rights of the majority should be respected.” Similar upheavals have been reported over the past six months, hitting far-flung Russian towns in Saratov, Chita, Rostov, Astrakhan and Irkutsk regions. A September poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that 57 percent of Russians thought Kondopoga-style violence could break out in their town, while 52 percent said they agreed with DPNI’s main slogan: “Russia for the Russians.”
Within days of Putin’s remarks, police descended on markets around the country, rounding up thousands of Caucasians – not only Georgians – whose documents showed any discrepancies. (Endemic corruption virtually ensures discrepancies in peoples’ official documents.) Moscow schools were ordered to report children with Georgian-sounding names to police, so their parents could be investigated. By late October, about 100 Georgian “illegal immigrants” were being deported to Tbilisi on special daily military flights.
Dozens of Georgian-owned companies have been closed down, on pretexts ranging from sanitary violations to tax evasion. The campaign even reached prominent Russians of Georgian heritage. Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, creator of several well-known Moscow monuments, found himself accused of “misappropriating” 2.1 million rubles (about $80,000) from the Russian Arts Academy that he heads. Georgian-born Grigory Chkhartishvili, who writes some of Russia’s most beloved detective fiction under the pen name Boris Akunin, was targeted by the tax police.
“It is no longer safe to be a dark-haired person in Russia,” says Chkhartishvili. “What’s happening to Georgians today is ethnic cleansing. The Russian state is sick with the virus of xenophobia.”
Georgia has been the scene of intense rivalry between Russia and the West since it broke from the USSR in 1991. Seeking levers of influence, Moscow backed successful early ’90s rebellions in two ethnically different Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose de facto independence is protected by Russian peacekeeping troops to this day. Washington scored points by persuading Georgia to host the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which opened this year, to carry newly-flowing Caspian crude to Western markets, bypassing Russia’s pipeline network. Russo-Georgian relations went into total freefall after the 2003 “Rose Revolution” ousted the cautious ex-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and brought a young U.S.-trained lawyer and fiery Georgian nationalist, Mikhael Saakashvili, to power in Tbilisi. Saakashvili has vowed to re-unite his fractured country and lead it into NATO before his term of office expires in 2009. In early October, NATO agreed to enter into an “intensified dialogue” with Georgia about membership.
In late September, Georgian police arrested four Russian officers and charged them with spying. After a furious reaction from the Kremlin, the men were released to European mediators, but the die was already cast in Moscow. Putin launched a full economic embargo, ordered the Russian Black Sea Fleet to hold war games off Georgia’s coast and authorized the domestic crackdown against resident Georgians.
Georgia’s two breakaway statelets, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have used the crisis to appeal to Moscow to unilaterally recognize their independence, a move that Georgians fear could lead to the irreversible division of their country.
“This is the biggest fear in Tbilisi today, that Russia will formalize those (statelets) by making them Russian protectorates with permanent Russian military bases,” says Archil Gegeshidze, an expert with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. Russia insists it has no such intentions, but Putin has repeatedly warned that this could change if the West recognizes the independence of Kosovo, the Albanian-populated Serbian province seized by NATO in a 1999 war.
Meanwhile, the escalating campaign against Georgians is driving internal Russian politics down dark and uncharted avenues. “The Kremlin is appealing to Russian society’s nationalistic moods, and that’s very dangerous,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs. “This kind of device is easy to use, but very hard to control.”