On popularity of radical nationalism in the year of elections

In the remaining months before the 2011 parliamentary elections a growing concensus emerged that Russian society has become extremely nationalistic. The level of xenophobia is growing each month, to the extent that it could result the repetition of the gathering in Manezhnaya Square in Moscow in December 2010, only this time with greater scope.

All politicians play with the “Russian idea” as if it is the main one of the masses. When looking at the propaganda of a few political parties, it seems that society is simply waiting for Putin to overthrow Medvedev and assert “Russian Power.” Now, we are asking ourselves whether all of this is in fact really that bad. A few years ago we evaluated the level of xenophobia in Russia by looking at the answers to the Levada Center’s question: “What do you think about the idea ‘Russia is for Russians’?” In 2001, around 55% of those asked responded favorably to this idea, while 2011 started with a jump of 4%: from 54% to 58%. While these statistics are striking there is a comforting detail: these statistics do not reach the record high of 2001. Additionally, the 58% of the population polled is, more or less, composed of radicals, and the moderates in society have always outnumbered the radicals. Further, this year the number of radical supporters wanting to fully enforce this idea has declined in comparison from 19% in 2010 to 15%. Moreover, according to the same Levada Center survey taken in 2011, when asked how one felt about the term “nationalism” only 8% of respondents answered positively, while 28% answered neutrally, and 44% negatively.

Nonetheless, the idea that society is not simply xenophobic, but also that xenophobia is the rise, has become commonplace. The growing tension demonstrated by these statistics also reflect the results from this survey: 52% versus 14% of the respondents believe that the number of Russians who share these extremist nationalistic views has increased in the past five to six years (21% of the respondents believe that this number has not changed). Among those who most strongly believe that with each month society is coming closer to a “bloody, Russian revolt” are the radical nationalists. This accounts for the attempts to establish contacts with different party systems and movements, as well as for the very ambitious forecasts about the number of people who will participate in the “Russian March” in 2011. But let’s try to imagine that not even all 15% of those who are ready to implement the slogan “Russia for Russians” as well as the 8% who favorably view nationalism (in fact, at least of these people should be nationalists themselves). Considering more than 10 million people live in Moscow, a minimum estimate of those will attend the March should be at least hundreds of thousands. In March 2010, the first peak of participation in the “Russian March” was reached, with 5,500 people participating, according to the estimates of the “Sova” Center. In 2011, organizers stated that almost 20,000 came to the march (they were expecting probably 10 to 15 thousand). Their expectations did not materialize. Maybe only a thousand more people came to the 2011 rally, than who came the year before.

Those who came differ little from the protestors of the past years. The same swastikas, the same racist chants, the same lack of restraint. The local residents related to them with the same wariness that newcomers do, even though they can sympathize for the idea of expelling all the migrants. The incredibly popular anti-corruption advocate, Alexei Navalny was the black sheep of the march. His fans, who for the most part do not share even his moderate nationalistic views, did not respond to his pro-nationalism appeal. Even fearing the possibility of political power using violence, while taking into account the proven facts, everything is still compromised in the eyes of the majority. The courts banned the “Slavic Union” and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, MAII, (especially those who organized these public demonstrations) for extremism. The new coalitions and their substitutes are not in a position to balance the radicalism of potential and actual members, and need to preserve a “civilized” face before the government and the less radical part of society. The real supporters of these organizations engage in violence, but if the police catch them their leaders will renounce them to avoid the disgust of the more moderate majority. Thus, supporters rightly consider them as traitors, and moderate nationalists do not trust them, but instead fear them. However, the current situation gives little cause for optimism. The fact is the causes of nationalism have not disappeared. The state has no distinct policy combating nationalist extremism (the state claims to fight extremism by deporting people based on their ethnicity), there is no social mobility or political life and terrible history books are used in schools. These are a few among countless reasons that perpetuate nationalist extremism and prevent its eradication.

We are witnessing a creeping legitimization of radical nationalism and its practices, including the use of violence. This legitimization can be noted, among other things, through two trends. A less noticeable, but important trend in connection with “humanization,” and the legitimization of extreme right leaders, who are possibly not even highly respected even in their own ranks, yet claim to be leaders and thus become “talking heads” of the underground movement. Since these extreme right groups, like more or less all the opposition figures in Russia, encounter pressure from the state, many moderate and non-nationalist politicians and activists believe they should protect and support these groups.

The press plays a large role in allowing this situation to develop. The few independent newspapers, radio stations, and television channels that exist in Russia are not averse to giving extreme nationalist leaders the opportunity to directly address the people, placing them on the same level with simple opposition leaders who are not promoting propaganda or using violence. Since these extreme rightists hide their true nature in the liberal media, their respectability grows with each interview they give to journalists. The second trend is noticeably louder and as well as more dangerous. Paradoxically, the legalization of radical nationalism facilitates the government fight against manifestations of this type of nationalism, including violence to a great extent. Anti-extremist legislation in Russia is not restricted to violent hate crimes; however, certain aspects of such legislation make its application very vague. The vagueness of these laws, as well as the monstrous state of law enforcement, leads to many cases of human rights abuses resulting from the application of this legislation. For the past few years the “Sova” Center has been monitoring and analyzing the misuses of this legislation, and we have come to the conclusion that it is more frequently used to combat undesirable political activists, religious minorities, and civil society groups. Random people and organizations are increasingly suffering from the incorrect implementation of these laws: law enforcement agencies need to strongly implement their “plan” to fight extremism, however it more convenient for them to achieve this by punishing librarians and school directors, rather than investigating dangerous, underground Neo-Nazi groups. As a result, the words “extremism” is being used for everything. Society has lost all faith in this law. Any defendant in court, even if he is accused of murder, receives sympathy from the opposition, media, and activists because the state calls him an extremist. To criticize the anti-extremist legislation in its entirety (and therefore including the Criminal Code articles on violent hate crime) has become acceptable. The terms “prisoners of conscience” are occasionally applied to Nazi-killers, and not only by their closest demagogic supporters, but also by unscrupulous journalists, politicians, and social activists, without professing any radical views, and are not even nationalists.

The conclusion is not very comforting. In recent years, Russian society has failed to show that it is capable of independently overcoming xenophobia and nationalism, demonstrated by the stable support of nationalist slogans. While strong radicalization is unnoticeable, the situation is certainly not improving. The government is achieving little success in a purely police fight against the most radical expression of nationalism—violence—and they are not showing any major signs of capacity in this regard. While neo-Nationalist organizations, that are responsible for murders and beatings, are more frequently being brought to court, such measures can only “bring down the temperature” and cannot cure the disease.

Moreover, we see deterioration in some areas, and stagnation in others. In these circumstances, combined with falling confidence in the state as a whole, society’s confidence in state’s only just fight—the fight against nationalism—will decline as well. Thus, in the more or less distant future, the xenophobic characteristic of current society could radicalize to the extent where society supports the use of violence.