Ethnic Cleansing in Russia

Putin stokes the flames of xenophobia by targeting non-Slavs in Georgia.

Fred Weir

Russian right-wing protesters from Russia's Liberal-Democratic Party stand in front of the Georgian embassy in Moscow.

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.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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