Non-resistance to xenophobia and intolerance on the part of the Russian authorities has long become commonplace, but acceptance of racism by oppositionists, who pay lip service to tolerance and humanism as the basis of their activities, is puzzling. The Yabloko party moved to support Yevgeny Roizman as its candidate for the governor of Sverdlovsk region, a man who is known for nationalistic statements in the past. Many people objected to this candidacy: they reminded of Roizman’s criminal record, scandals related to the activities of his notorious Yekaterinburg Fund “City without Drugs” and his anti-Roma and anti-Tajik statements. Representatives of the Youth section of Yabloko raised these issues at a meeting of the party committee on June 21, 2017, which was attended by Roizman himself and where his appointment as the party’s official candidate for the governorship was discussed. Answering questions about xenophobia, Roizman said that he didn’t “think badly of any ethnic group, but [is] only critical of particular individuals”. In addition, he signed Yabloko’s Memorandum on Political Alternative, a document, which contains a special paragraph on the rejection of nationalism. As a result of this, Roizman’s candidacy was supported, an additional reason for his support being that he is not a member of Yabloko, but will run in the elections with the support of this party as an independent candidate. “There are no chemically pure people in politics, you can find something troublesome in anyone”, deputy chairman of Yabloko party Sergey Ivanenko pointed out.
Still, it seems that while you can “find something troublesome in anybody”, one should pay attention to some particular points. If a politician (albeit not “chemically pure”, whatever that means) has changed his views, recognizing that nationalism is bad, and that “criticism” of a whole ethnic group is unacceptable, we could expect to hear something more specific from him. For example, a recognition that he made mistakes in the past, when demolishing Roma houses or advocating pogroms [during his term as a city mayor of Yekaterinburg]. However, in his comments on social networks related to the discussion on the admissibility of his methods, Roizman himself does not repent at all, but instead makes statements very similar to his previous anti-Roma xenophobic statements: “In the gypsy settlement, behind the houses, in garages, thawed corpses were found in the spring. And the authorities said that it was impossible to fight against this. We started an uprising against drug traffickers and we managed to block the whole settlement, and immediately parents of drug addicts started to bring their children to us: some by persuasion, some in a trunk of a car”.
That means that a mayor of a city (and this is not the first or the second city mayor that we encountered who reacts in this way to the criticism of anti-Roma xenophobia: Alexander Donskoy made similar statements as the mayor of Arkhangelsk, Georgy Boos later said similar things as the mayor of Kaliningrad) openly writes: there was a problem with the Roma, “we managed to block the whole settlement”. I, too, disapprove of drug use, but how can I explain to local authorities that the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation does not allow demolition of houses or entire settlements as a form of combating the drug problem? How can I persuade the authorities that there were children, sick people, elderly people, or even drug addicts themselves in these houses? Many people have already brought up Roizman’s cruelty to drug addicts, but his racism somehow did not get particularly noticed. However, what’s more important is not that particular person, but the fact that he was supported: Roizman received popular recognition and the support of Yabloko as a fighter against “non-Russians”.
Throughout his political career as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, Roizman constantly drew attention to himself because of his negative attitude towards Roma, people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, sometimes openly calling for violence against these ethnic groups “in order to save Russians from drug addiction”. Back in 2005, in Irkutsk, while participating in a meeting of the regional legislative assembly, where he was invited as a deputy and member of the “United Russia” party, Roizman said: “Why should I tolerate that some gypsies and Tajiks stuff our city with heroin and turn our children into animals in front of ourselves?” Roizman considered the demolition of houses to be a proper method of combating representatives of disagreeable ethnic groups: “It only takes demolishing one gypsy mansion, and all the gypsies living in the neighborhood start to leave”.
In 1999 Roizman established the foundation “City without Drugs”, which fought against drug trafficking and drug addiction, but at the same time initiated a number of xenophobic campaigns. Actions of intimidation in Roma settlements were organized, anti-Tajik rallies were held. In 2011 Roizman made public calls to arm against the “ethnic occupants” following an inter-ethnic conflict in the village of Sagra. Commenting on the events in Sagra, Roizman, like in many other cases, blamed Roma people for everything: “Don’t we see the whole scale of the disaster for the Russians?”; “How long can we tolerate this gypsy impunity?”; “The Russians must unite in the face of a common trouble”. Many people supported the pogrom in Sagra back then, justifying the murder of a “non-Russian” as self-defense, as well as the persecution of Roma people, which was provoked by this conflict and the way it was covered in the mass media.
It was partly due to the use of anti-Roma stereotypes, among other things, that Roizman managed to score additional points for his political career. In 2013 he became the mayor of Yekaterinburg. At the end of his last year in the office of Yekaterinburg mayor, another conflict occurred: a criminal conflict involving several ex-commandos with combat weapons and local Roma people occurred. These former commandos (also doubling as local “Cossacks”) opened fire using illegally kept weapons against unarmed people, several of whom died. Who was accused and taken into custody? “Dima-the-Gypsy”, who did not shoot and did not keep weapons. The Cossacks were then released from custody. It is interesting, however, how the supporters of the “Cossacks” responded: “We tried to get support from the mayor Yevgeny Roizman. At one time he achieved fame as a fearless fighter against Gypsy drug dealers, and he became city mayor precisely thanks to the support of Russian men from Sagra. If it were not for Evgeny Vadimovich [Roizman], the country would not have learned about the attack of the ethnic gang against the residents of Sagra. And the defenders of their village would have received maximum prison sentences”. That means that, in fact, the events in Sagra created a feeling of impunity for the nationalists in the Urals, the belief that “Russian men” and “village defenders” would not be imprisoned even for murder, as long as Roizman is behind them.
Against this background of an entirely biased reaction to the events in Sagra, the real problems of the Roma people not only remain unresolved, but are also getting worse. There are a lot of problems permeating various aspects of Roma life, ranging from education to the observation of basic human rights. And these are problems persist not only in Yekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk region, but throughout all of Russia. Let us take the example of schools where Roma children study. Of the ten schools I visited in Tula, Penza, Kazan, Orel and Volgograd, only two schools had Roma children studying in mixed classes with other children. In all the other schools, segregated training of Roma children was practiced, where Roma children actually find themselves outside of the educational process. Many teachers are not interested in their education, refer to the reluctance of Roma children themselves to learn or to the culture of early marriages, after which pupils leave school. However, the experience of other schools demonstrates that in schools where Roma children are included in the normal educational process, harmful practices of early marriages are on the decline. But if they are not taught at school properly, then the parents prefer to arrange a wedding, “in order for them not to hang out on the street”. In some schools, Roma children are excluded from communication with other children, they even attend sports grounds at specially scheduled times. For them festive activities are organized separately from Russian children, they are fed separately from other students in school canteens. What kind of education can be obtained in such conditions, how can a person be integrated into a society that indicates from their very childhood that he or she is “different”, a person that it would be better not to have at all?
Roma people cannot find a normal job, largely because of the lack of education, they are forced to resort to accidental jobs and sources of income. Many live in improperly documented houses, which in turn leads to demolitions and violent evictions. In recent years, several Roma settlements in Russia have been destroyed in the Tula, Orel and Perm regions. About 150 Roma families, including those with many children, were left without shelter, without any adequate alternative, were forced to wander around trying to find help from their relatives, huddle near the fire in the street and dwell in tents.
This summer, two Roma settlements in Tatarstan, Aysha and Nizhniye Vyazovye, live under permanent threat of upcoming eviction. The head of the Zelenodolsk district, Alexander Tygin, is also known for his strongly anti-Roma sentiments. He has often publicly insulted Roma people, persecuting them in various ways. The authorities even tried to deprive several Roma families of parental rights through the court. At the same time, court cases were brought demanding the demolition of Roma houses, although these were inhabited by families with children, whom it was also attempted for some reason to deprive of their parental rights. If the villages are demolished, then the residents will have to live on the street, and none of the officials are likely to be held responsible for the children being left homeless. In any case, it is Roma people who will always be guilty, their guilt has long been uncontested: wherever Roma people are being talked about, the main words are “fraud”, “drugs”, “Roma criminal bosses”. And people fail to see the real threats behind this, which include demolitions of whole villages and the segregation of Roma children.
Now, it seems that it is Yabloko’s turn to be seen as being tolerant towards xenophobic rhetoric. The founder of the party, Grigory Yavlinsky, has expressed his certainty that if Evgeny Roizman “is elected the governor, the region will become a center of high-tech services industry and special attention will be paid to health and a healthy lifestyle”. This, of course, is more important than the rights of Tajiks and Roma people. The hopes Yabloko puts in Roizman are in no way connected to the necessity of opposing discrimination, and the party doesn’t seem to understand that its support for “the battle for health” advocated by Roizman and his methods only aggravates the already vulnerable and disenfranchised position of ethnic minorities.
Originally published in Radio Liberty blog