Racism and happiness

In Russia 86% of Roma people feel happy, and now the experts of the United Nations know about it, too. The results of this “scientific research”, which had surprised many specialists in the field back in April 2016 when it had been first published, were officially presented by head of the Russian Federal Agency for Nationalities Igor Barinov in early August 2017, during the review of Russia’s state report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) in Geneva. The reasons for this happiness were also announced by Mr. Barinov: it turned out to be a special set of values, characteristic to Russian Roma and supposedly not common among other ethnic groups – namely, family and children. UN CERD was so overwhelmed by these highly scientific data that it asked the Russian delegation to provide additional information on it within the next 48 hours: what method was used to measure the degree of happiness of the Russian Roma population? How does it relate to the fact that only 4% of Roma in Russia (according to the results of the same study) have higher education? How can one understand the statement in the official state report that “there are no cases of segregation of Roma children in schools”, but in those instances when segregation is actually officially recorded, this had been done solely on the request of the parents of Roma children themselves and in respect of their “nomadic way of life”?

The situation of the Roma population in Russia is a topic of constant interest to various UN Committees, and UN’s highly professional experts could not be deceived by the “Potemkin villages” of “Roma happiness”. Blatant ignorance of those who drafted the state report and those who presented it to the public was obvious, as the continued reference to the “nomadic way of life” that Russian Roma supposedly lived, had not corresponded to reality for a long time. The Russian authorities failed to “record” the segregation of Roma children in schools in spite of the well-known facts, which had been repeatedly reported by the human rights activists: there are special school classes under the symbolic letter “Ts” (the first letter of the word “tsygane”, or Roma, in Russian), in which Roma children of all ages are taught in Tatarstan and “gypsy classes” in Tula region. Moreover, in Leningrad region Roma children even have segregated celebration of the beginning of school year and the New Year. There are even cases when Roma children are fed at separate tables in schools, they have separate dishes and separate lunch hours in school cafeterias (Volgograd region), they are banned from using the common school toilets, because “the Roma have other traditions”. In response to experts’ questions about such cases of discrimination, segregation and racism against Roma schoolchildren, the representative of the Russian Ministry of Education Kseniya Trinchenko stated that “[we] do not understand segregation in this way”, that this was “a necessary measure”, which had been applied not only to Roma children in Russia, but also to the children of migrants and refugees. However, it is now generally acknowledged that it is the children of minorities and migrants who primarily need assistance in integration, which separate classes can not help in any way.

It was exactly on the day of the meeting of the UN CERD (and on the Day of remembrance of Roma, killed by Nazis), that Roma houses were forcibly demolished in the settlement of Aisha in Tatarstan. Their houses were bulldozed “with the support” of special police forces with dogs (same as earlier in 2016 in Tula region), and police paddy wagons were prepared for the protesters. Families with children and disabled people remained on the street ahead of cold autumn and winter season. Similar risk of finding oneself on the street faces thousands of other Roma residents in Russia, as they can not get adequate protection in courts and the local administrations often do not want to see Roma dwellers on “their” territory and oppose their attempts to legalize their land allotments and houses. Hypocritical statements are made about the “family and children” as the basis for the happiness of the Roma people in Russia, but large families of Roma residents in Aisha were left without roof over their heads, and those who had lost their homes during the demolition of the “camp” in Tula region a year and a half earlier, had found themselves in the wreckage of their former quality cottages. There was no sense in this brutal demolition of the Roma settlement in Tula region, except for being a purely repressive measure: the plans for “legal construction” remained on paper only, fire safety has only worsened, and the poverty and unsanitary conditions became worse.

The alternative report submitted to the UN CERD by the Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” in cooperation with other human rights organizations also concerned other issues that have become the subject of international discussion at the Committee’s session. Experts of the “Sova” Center (Russia) noted in particular that the law enforcement agencies concentrated more on supposedly “extremist” statements published on the Internet than on the proper investigation of violent hate crimes, presenting overhyped reports and creating the appearance of effective work. The representative of the Russian prosecutor’s office, however, said that “the broader the definition of extremism in the legislation, the better we will counteract this negative phenomena”. The UN CERD was also interested in how Russia is fighting the xenophobic statements of politicians, including those made during election campaigns. The official Russian delegation replied that each particular case was being carefully investigated, but so far not a single such statement had been ruled unlawful. Suffice it to refer to the racist statements of Alexander Tygin, the head of Zelenodolsky district of Tatarstan, who had in fact switched from words to deeds as the local Roma settlement there had been evicted. Human rights defenders had tried to bring him to justice, but to no avail.

Human rights defenders have also raised a new issue related to racial discrimination – the situation in Crimea. Representative of the Supreme Court of Russia said that “work was in progress” over the implementation of the UN resolution that had ordered the restoration of the prohibited Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people. However, there was a lot of juggling with figures involved: supposedly 81% of the Crimean Tatars do not feel any ethnic tensions in the region, 86% deny the existence of conflicts in religious sphere, 89% had not faced any hostility for religious reasons. Apparently, these figures are of the same kind as those presenting the picture of happy Roma people in Russia. Field research in Crimea, which became the basis of an alternative report, indicated quite the opposite situation. State propaganda of hatred of the Crimean Tatars led to discrimination, xenophobia and the destruction of long-standing good neighborly relations between various ethnic groups. There are cases of political persecution of Crimean Tatars, violations of the rights of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians to education and the use their native languages.

The UN Committee was also presented with “shadow reports” by some organizations, which pursued goals different to those of human rights groups. These reports did not criticize the Russian authorities, instead they sang praise to them, which made the very mechanism of submitting alternative materials meaningless. At the meeting of civil society representatives with UN experts, members of the World Russian People’s Council and the European Center for the Development of Democracy were also present and, of course, they were there in order to claim that the human rights organizations present at the meeting were biased and that the situation in Russia in overcoming racism and xenophobia was simply wonderful.

Valery Engel, the head of the Latvian-based European Center for the Development of Democracy, has repeated several times during his speech that he had headed various Jewish organizations of Russia for many years. But he did so not to express outrage at the anti-Semitic antics of some of the Duma deputies and their justification on the part of other Russian state officials, but only to declare his support for dubious legal tools such as Russia’s “Federal List of Extremist Materials” or the arbitrarily applied persecution for some statements published on the Internet. Engel challenged the crime statistics analyzed by the “Sova” Center, blamed the experts of ADC “Memorial” for being biased when highlighting the situation of the Roma in Russia, asserted that the data on education in the Crimean Tatar language was incorrect. In general, he behaved like a representative of the official Russian delegation, refuting the alternative reports. He has also cited some figures, indicating supposedly that the level of xenophobia against Roma in Russia was only 20-22%, and islamophobia as low as 18%, compared to Europe where these figures were supposedly as high as 60-70% (the source of these statistics remained unknown). He also claimed that radicalism in Russia had been weakened, because the law enforcement agencies had been working fine, and he has also referred to some “objective reasons”, such as radicals leaving Russia to fight in Syria and Ukraine.

However, if Engel still noted some deficiencies in the work of authorities (for example, the lack of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in Russia), Roman Silantyev of the Russian People’s Council didn’t dare to criticize the Russian authorities at all. He spoke almost exclusively about religious issues: that there was no discrimination, halal and kosher food can be obtained anywhere, the level of anti-Semitism was zero, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned and for a good reason, the positive experience of Russia has successfully spread to new territories, previously Russians had been oppressed in the Crimea, but now everything was fine there. In order “to further improve the situation, which had been rather good anyway”, Silantyev proposed to introduce even stricter legislation, to apply forcible measures of influence, “to create unbearable living conditions for accomplices of terrorists”. And a real cherry on this pie was Silantyev’s answer to the question concerning which group of the population was in the most vulnerable position from the point of view of racial discrimination in Russia. He stated that “the most vulnerable groups are the majority ethnic, religious and sexual groups. Minorities are so much better protected, and this situation needs to be balanced”.

The use of NGOs loyal to the state with the aim to justify discrimination is not a completely new practice, but it is particularly damaging to the situation of indigenous peoples. “Social activists”, who sing in tune with the powerful, give mining companies carte blanche for the predatory use of natural resources, and those who try to protect the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditional ways of living are being persecuted. The head of the Russian delegation, Igor Barinov, allowed himself to attack the representatives of the Shor people, the indigenous people of the Kemerovo region, accusing them of trying to earn extra profits by selling their land. ADC “Memorial” supported the human rights report, which had described in detail the destruction of the Shor village of Kazas, which had included the burning of houses, explosion of the sacred mountain and blocking access to the cemetery. The official Russian delegation, on its part, reported on the successful “transfer of spirits” of the sacred mountain, the teaching of the Shor language at school (one hour per week, optional school course in Borodino village school) and tried to present the situation in Kazas settlement as a special case, while in fact it was true that this situation had demonstrated some general and completely unsatisfactory tendencies.

While the head of the Federal Agency for Nationalities invited the UN experts to visit Russia for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, I felt like inviting Mr. Barinov to the Kemerovo region, which he himself referred to as “the Siberian Switzerland”: come and breathe the coal dust, see the fire from the explosions of the open pit! Maybe then the officials will believe the Shor people, who are trying to protect their right to live on their native land.

Olga Abramenko

Originally published in Radio Liberty blog