ADC Memorial expert Olga Abramenko spoke about the situation of Roma people in Russia at the conference The Cost of Security, which was organized by the Sova Center for Information and Analysis. The discussion was titled “Discrimination in Russia Today. On Unorganized Forms of Discrimination.”
Recent years have seen a spike in spontaneous anti-Roma actions when pogroms occurred following conflicts or crimes suspected of having been committed by a Roma person and Roma residents were forced to flee. The most notorious cases occurred in Urazovo (Belgorod Oblast, 2018, when a Roma person was accused of a terrible crime and almost 70 Roma residents had to flee); in Ust-Abakan (Khakassia, 2018, when over 500 residents of a dense Roma settlement were forced to flee and their homes were subsequently looted after the police failed to take action; the Roma were not able to settle in another place and the administration filed a lawsuit to demolish the illegal structures); and in Chemodanovka (Penza Oblast, 2019, when a mass brawl ended in a fatality and over 900 Roma residents were forced to leave).
Russia’s Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs (FAEA) reports that “the state system for monitoring interethnic and interconfessional relations and preventing conflicts before they escalate has recorded a high level of potential for conflict in dense Roma communities in a number of constituent entities of the Russian Federation.” The FAEA recorded 48 such events in the second half of 2020 alone.
In the case of the Roma minority, “unorganized” forms of discriminatory behavior have become possible largely because “organized” forms of discrimination are widespread and condoned by the government. These forms of behavior include the destruction of Roma homes declared “illegal structures” by a court, the segregation of children in “Roma classes,” and the presumption of guilt and ethnic profiling in the law enforcement and judicial systems (for example, 28 people – all of them Roma – are still on trial after the notorious ethnic conflict in Chemodanovka).
Prejudice against Roma people and legal nihilism in relation to them is transmitted from the very top (for example, the Russian president justified the mass demolition of homes in the Roma settlement of Plekhanovo in 2018 by alleging that the residents were engaged in the drug trade). Local authorities understand such “messages” if not as guidelines for action, then at least as a way to justify structural discrimination that the Roma minority has traditionally faced in Russia.
Meanwhile, in recent years the “ethnic question” has acquired a cumbersome bureaucracy in the form of the Strategy for State Ethnic Policy of the Russian Federation Through 2025 (2018), the attached State Program of the Russian Federation “Implementation of Ethnic Policy” (2018), the Comprehensive Roadmap for the Socioeconomic and Ethnocultural Development of Roma People in the Russian Federation (the current version was approved in 2019), and the FAEA’s Best Practices for Working with the Roma Population for executive bodies of Russia’s constituent entities and local self-government bodies (2019).
These documents provide for a certain amount of funding, contain assessment indicators, and require results and reports from local authorities and the responsible authority (the FAEA). For example, the FAEA must report to the government twice a year on its implementation of a comprehensive “Roma plan” and gather information for this purpose from the regions. We can agree with many of the points made in the FAEA reports, particularly in regard to response to ethnic conflicts and ways to prevent them:
“An analysis of the situation at the local level shows that local government bodies often start taking meaningful measures to settle conflicts only after news about an escalating situation spreads beyond the regions, and they sometimes quietly attempt to squeeze Roma communities out of the area…
In addition, planned regional measures to socialize Roma people are often superficial and declarative in nature and do not have any direct impact on the main causes of social tension….
The unilateral and often biased way in which the media presents materials and the fact that Roma people are not very involved in measures to harmonize ethnic relations factor into this to a great extent….
Materials from constituent entities and government bodies rarely provide a full picture. It is impossible to take meaningful measures that could improve the situation without a deep understanding of the ongoing processes.”
However, neither the FAEA nor the Russian government recognizes racism as one of the causes and constant backgrounds of structural discrimination against the Roma in Russia. The agency’s reports contain one-sided criticism of the Roma population for “lacking a common set of values and low involvement in social institutions,” “poor legal literacy, widespread archaic traditions, a welfare mentality, and mass violations of the right of children to an education.” This last point is very revealing: Responsibility for the fact that the absolute majority of Roma children do not finish school and that many only receive an elementary education in the best cases is put entirely on the parents. Moreover, the FAEA completely ignores the problem of segregation in schools and the absence of normal access to a school education for thousands of Roma children.
Russia also denies segregation in its reports to international bodies, but in these reports the FAEA does not criticize the Roma and instead shows “respect” for Roma traditions and for their former nomadic lifestyle. In its most recent report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (2020), it reports in its typical manner that “There have been no established cases of the segregation of Roma children. In some rural schools, so-called Roma classes have been organized in response to requests by parents, taking into account the ethnic traditions and nomadic lifestyle of this ethnic group. For the same reasons, in some educational institutions, distance learning and after-hours classes are arranged for these children…. The Procurator General of the Russian Federation has received no reports of violations of the right of Roma children to receive an education in accordance with federal education standards, nor of discrimination against Roma children in the field of education or the establishment of separate classes or remedial classes for Roma children in general education establishments.” He who has eyes to see, let them see: the segregation and discrimination of Roma children is still widespread in dozens of Russian schools, as are other violations of the right to education. This problem is well-known and characteristic not just of Russia, so it is distinctly unprofessional of the FAEA to conceal this problem from itself or justify it by citing the proverbial “nomadic way of life.”
As far as preventing ethnic conflicts is concerned, the State Program to implement the ethnic policy includes a special subprogram: subprogram 7 “Preventing extremism on national and religious grounds.” This subprogram contains a quantitative assessment of effectiveness and sets the tasks of increasing the number of ethnic conflicts identified by the monitoring system and settled in their early stages and decreasing the number of conflicts that “flare up” and reach the federal or regional levels. Judging by the events in Chemodanovka, Ust-Abakan, and other places, local authorities have chosen the path of denying the ethnic nature of the conflicts and the problem of racism, preferring to suppress information and interfere with the work of journalists and human rights defenders. This is probably why many conflict situations (at least of the 48 recorded by the FAEA in the second half of 2020) did not become known to the wider public. This means that rosy statistics can be created, but the causes of the conflicts will not disappear without systemic measures.
The Strategy for State Ethnic Policy and the State Program for its implementation also include quantitative indicators for efficiency like level of civic identity (as a Russian national); share of citizens who have a positive view of the state of ethnic relations; share of citizens who do not feel discriminated against on the basis of ethnic, linguistic or religious identity; share of citizens who do not have negative feelings about foreign nationals; and number of ethnic and religious conflicts.
The state report to UN CERD (2020) cites data from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (RPORC) showing that “overall satisfaction with the state of interethnic relations in the country among the general population stands at 78 percent, with 22 percent considering relations to be friendly and 56 percent describing them as smooth and conflict-free. Among those polled, 87 percent said they bore no resentment or hostility towards members of any ethnic group. The overwhelming majority (96 percent) had not experienced hostility or enmity based on their own ethnicity within the past year.”
It is difficult to believe these excellent results. In 2015, a comprehensive sociological study by the very same RPORC and FAEA titled “Socioeconomic, Ethnocultural, and Legal Problems of the Roma People in Russia” showed that 50 percent of respondents had negative feelings about Roma people (35 percent felt distrust and fear and 15 percent felt irritation); 74 percent of respondents believed that Roma people disregard the law and live by their own rules; 27 percent agreed with the statement that many Roma people are honest workers, while 55 percent disagreed; and 48 percent believed that Roma people do not have permanent residences.
A 2018 Levada Center poll showed that the Roma are the most “undesirable people.” As Nadezhda Demeter, head of the Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Russian Roma, put it, 43 percent of respondents would “not allow them in Russia.” The situation had worsened somewhat by 2020, when this figure stood at 44 percent of respondents (as compared to 35 percent in 2010).
The increase in xenophobia in relation to Roma and the explosive ethnic conflicts and anti-Roma actions of recent years force the question of how effective the “bureaucratic” work of the state bodies responsible for ethnic relations in Russia has really been. As long as they are going to sugarcoat reality and suppress problems for the sake of some pretty numbers in their reports and the appearance – on paper – that they are implementing plans and strategies, the situation with ethnic relations will not improve.