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Anti-Semitic, Racist Attacks a Growing Threat in Russia, Ukraine

(Washington, D.C. -- June 23, 2006) Anti-Semitic and racist attacks in Russia and Ukraine show no sign of abating, according to an expert on racial violence. Nickolai Butkevich, Research and Advocacy Director with the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) told a RFE/RL audience last week that the month of April this year saw the largest number of racially motivated murders (7 murders), and that the number of attacks against minorities in Russia has increased over the last decade.

According to Butkevich, the number of Neo-Nazi, skinhead and other extremists in Russia is estimated by Russian police to be anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000, with sociologists putting the number closer to 50,000. Three reasons are usually cited for the existence of these extremists, Butkevich said: the collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s, the demographic collapse of Russia's population, and migration by Muslims from the southern tier of the former Soviet republics. Steady economic improvement has not, however, led to a decline in the extremist movement, Butkevich said -- it has, instead, spread "outside of the big cities of European Russia" to the rest of the country.

Butkevich said that he believes the Neo-Nazi movement is at its peak now in Russia, because of a "psychological affect" generated by both the social disruptions of the 1990s and the current government's efforts to "reassert Russia's dominance" in the world. Those who have joined extremist groups, Butkevich said, feel that their activities represent "a kind of revenge" for Russia.

Although the Neo-Nazi and skinhead problem has continued to grow in Russia, "Russian law enforcement agencies are doing a better job" in tackling the threat, according to Butkevich. The number of arrests for crimes tied to racist and anti-Semitic incidents has risen in the last four years, Butkevich said, and "some prosecutors have even started to apply hate-crime statutes, which never happened before."

Turning to the situation in Ukraine, Butkevich said the Neo-Nazi movement has gained strength and attacks have worsened over the past three years. "Unlike Russian officials," Butkevich said, Ukrainian law enforcement officials have "continued to deny" that the country has a problem with hate crimes. Comparing the situation in Ukraine today to that in Russia during the 1990s, Butkevich said, "is like deja vu." Jews are the primary target of hate crimes in Ukraine rather than Muslims, according to Butkevich, and political groups associated with the Orange Coalition of reformers have "called for mass violence" against Jews. In addition, Butkevich said, Ukrainian officials are doing little to fight racist and anti-Semitic extremism -- for example, in the last ten years Ukraine has prosecuted only one hate-crime and one hate-speech case, while in Russia there have been a dozen such prosecutions.