Posted on Oct 11, 2019
On September 8th of this year Russians went to the polls. Around 7.2 million people were eligible to elect 45 lawmakers in the Duma, the Moscow parliament, which is dominated by Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party. The run up to these elections, however, was overshadowed by an unprecedented wave of civil discontent, and state sanctioned brutality.
In Moscow, an authorised rally on Sakharov Avenue attended by 50 thousand people saw distressing scenes of violent repression by the authorities. There was no attempt by the authorities to disguise their brutality, the Kremlin wanted to send out a clear message - opposition to Putin’s power would be crushed.
Multiple arrests and detentions both in Moscow and in individual republics of opposition politicians were reported.
Spurious “reasons” were invented in order to prevent opposition candidates from appearing on the ballot papers, including claims that they had failed to collect enough genuine signatures to take part in the elections, an allegation the affected candidates denied. Even by the standards of Putin’s Russia, these were indeed disgraceful elections.
Many had viewed the vote as a litmus test ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections of the opposition’s ability to mobilise support, and of the authorities’ willingness to tolerate dissent. Now they know: there is little such will, if any, and Vladimir Putin will tolerate no dissent, no opposition, and all threats to his totalitarian rule will be crushed.
Despite unusually high levels of interest in the elections prior to September 8th, Russian citizens appear to place experience over optimism, and the turnout was, as is usual in Russia, pitifully low. “What is the point?”, many asked themselves.
But if the regime shows little interest in the will of the people as a whole, its behaviour towards ethnic and religious minorities owes more to the traditions of Nazi Germany than to contemporary norms of tolerance and inclusion. Diversity is not something that is valued in Putin’s Russia.
An incident that occurred just a week prior to the elections, an incident that is far from isolated, illustrates well the situation on the ground. At the end of August a video emerged of one of Russia’s growing wave of migrant workers - many Russians are fleeing the country, and this combined with declines birth rates is causing labour shortages in certain sectors - being viciously beaten by a group of masked men.
The shocking three minute video showed the unidentifiable victim, bloodied and writhing on the ground in agony, being taunted by his attackers, who demanded to know his nationality. “Tajik”, the man is heard to reply. He is informed that he was attacked because he “did not stay in his homeland, but came to Russia.”
At the time of writing, it is not known if the victim survived the brutal attack.
Tajik Interior Minister, Colonel-General Ramazon Rakhimzoda, sent a telegram to the Russian Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev asking him to punish the “Russian nationalists” responsible, the republic’s MIA’s website reported.
It is worth considering Russian nationalists. The violently racist Skinhead movement in Russia is well established, and such political awareness as the individuals may have is heavily influenced by Hitlerism. The vagaries of National Socialist thought are of little interest to them, but they find the symbolism and the violence against foreigners very attractive.
Until the end of the Yeltsin era, Russia’s far-right was firmly Anti-State. Since the arrival on the political scene of Vladimir Putin, the attitude has shifted considerably. There quickly developed a convergence between the Neo-Nazi skinheads and the so-called “Nashi” youth movement, set up at Putin’s behest.
Citizens of former Soviet republics often find themselves in the sights not only of far-right thugs, who appear to operate on the streets with impunity, but also of the authorities themselves. “Foreign” culture is often the target of choice.
On August 20th of this year, Kazakh media reported on the detention of the head of “Murager”, the Moscow based society of Kazakh culture, Yernazar Nuriyev. The raison d’être of Murager” is to “actively promote the revival, preservation and development of the Kazakh culture, the adoption of universal values through familiarisation and interaction with cultures of various peoples.”
It would appear, however, that investigators have managed to “obtain” a “confession” from Nuriyev, in which he “admits his guilt”. He now faces up to 10 years in one of Russia’s notorious prisons.
The Council of Europe, in a report published in 2018, expressed concern about the current policy of the Russian authorities in relation to national minorities. Of particular concern to the committee is the language reform of Russia. The report notes that multilingualism is being eliminated in schools.
The weak position of minority languages in the education system, which started with the educational reform in 2006, was not remedied during the reporting period. On the contrary, the teaching in and of minority languages in schools has decreased owing, inter alia, to the closure of small village schools, including in the so-called “compact settlements” where minority languages were taught. Overall, the Advisory Committee observes that the languages of numerically small groups, many of which have indigenous status, are particularly endangered. The increased attention given to the teaching of the Russian language combined with certain less supportive attitudes towards minority languages might lead to their further marginalisation and endanger their further use and development,” is the main conclusion of the report. The report also regrets that Russia adopted laws restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as they “have created an unfavourable climate for the development of civil society and have stigmatised independent human rights organisations by labelling them as “foreign agents” based on their alleged “political activity” and foreign funding.
This policy echoes strongly that of the Soviet era, when Russian language was imposed upon the subjugated states to the point of banning the use of indigenous languages in public buildings.
The Council of Europe report expressed concern about the current policy of the Russian authorities in relation to national minorities, highlighting the fact that multilingualism is effectively being eliminated in schools as a consequence of language reforms. The Unified State Exam, taken upon admission to a higher educational institution, must now be passed only Russian, regardless of the language of instruction.
Again, this echoes Soviet era policy, when all higher education was conducted in Russian language, excluding, for example, Belarussian, which is now a dying language, and Ukrainian, although the latter survived in private and has made a spectacular comeback, spurred on by public sentiment following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In Crimea itself, the indigenous Tatar people have been subject to a programme of ethnic cleansing since 2014. The Tatar parliament, the Mejlis, has been closed down and outlawed, as has Tatar language media. Prominent Tatar political and community leaders have simply “disappeared”.
Homes have been razed to the ground as they contravene newly imposed Russian laws, with the occupants being moved on in a policy reminiscent of the 1944 expulsion of the Crimean Tatars by Josef Stalin, in which more than 230,000 were deported, most of them women, children, and the elderly. Tens of thousands perished.
The US Government’s International Religious Freedom Commission, in its 2019 report on religious minorities in the North Caucasus and occupied Crimea stated that: "The Russian authorities are persecuting members of religious minorities through fines, detentions and criminal prosecution due to the fact that the concept of “extremism” is not interpreted accurately in Russian law”.
In Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will. Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, often referred to as the Donbas, continued to expropriate church buildings and intimidate religious communities
The USCIRF report describes Russia as “one of the largest violators of the freedoms of national minorities”.
Referring to Russia’s highly controversial “Anti-Extremist” laws, which following amendments known as FZ-153, passed in 2006 allows the president to authorise “elimination” of “extremists” at home or abroad, the reports says: “The anti-extremism law, for example, lacks a clear definition of extremism, and the use or advocacy of violence is not a prerequisite for such a designation. Because virtually any speech can be prosecuted, the law is a powerful way to intimidate members of religious communities. Religious and other communities can be financially blacklisted or liquidated, and individuals can be subjected to criminal prosecution for social media posts that are arbitrarily determined to offend the religious sensibilities of others,”
As long as Putin considers himself Stalin’s heir he will try to complete the task begun by his predecessor of the destruction of ‘a hostile people’ and repress the indigenous population of Crimea. With each passing day, the annexed peninsula is becoming ever more Russified. - Refat Chubarov, the head of the Mejlis
It is not only in occupied Crimea that Muslims face persecution. in Russia itself it is not easy for Muslims, who make up 7% of the Russian population, to obtain permission to build mosques. In Moscow, for example, where up to two million Muslims live, there are only five mosques.
The committee also expressed its chagrin over the fact that Muslims are portrayed as “criminal migrants” and “radical elements”. The Council of Europe report also mentions a specific incident in Bashkortostan, a predominantly Muslim Republic, where the authorities prevented public manifestations in defence of their native languages, detaining four activists. The Muslims of Bashkortostan - also known as Bashkir - are of indigenous Bashkiri and Tatar origin. The Republic is home to over 1000 mosques.
The stories of persecution, intimidation, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and murder by the Russian state of religious and ethnic minorities represent many thousands of individual tragedies. However, perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is the fact that these programs are being perpetrated in full view of the wider world: history is repeating itself.
As the Crimean Tatars, who suffered under the vicious rule of Vladimir Putin’s idol, Josef Stalin, and who were only permitted relatively recently to return to their homeland after decades in exile, find themselves once again under the Russian yoke, many minority groups in Russia will be asking themselves “will we be next?”
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