Four months after a violent rally of over 5,000 football fans just steps away from the Kremlin on Manezh Square, the government appears to be taking the first steps in curtailing what Prime Minister Vladimir Putin then called a “bacillus” of nationalism.
“There a lot of mistakes, but the government is moving in the right direction,” Semyon Charny, a head expert at the Moscow Bureau For Human Rights, which monitors hate crime, told The Moscow News.
A guilty verdict against ultranationalist couple Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgeniya Khasis in the murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova two years ago draws a line under a problem that many say has been festering unhindered for years.
And the arrest of five people for their part in a violent gathering that police were initially seen as too hesitant to suppress is signaling that authorities are ready for change.
“The government is really trying to fight this,” Natalia Yudina, chief expert at the SOVA hate crime monitoring agency, says. “In 2010 there was a marked decrease in the number of hate crimes, and we seen an increase in the number of cases tried as hate crimes. This means that the justice system has started working.”
Sympathy and fear
The high-profile trial, which began in January, saw several jurors withdraw – some cited pressure, and some claimed their political beliefs would not allow them to judge objectively.
In the final ruling Thursday, only seven jurors out of 12 found Tikhonov and Khasis guilty of gunning down Markelov and Baburova in January 2009.
And while several publicity stunts – including marriage between the two and a suicide attempt by Khasis – may have affected general sentiment, the ruling suggests a high degree of nationalist sympathy in the population at large.
“A lot of people are either sympathetic or are simply afraid,” Yudina said.
Two birds with one stone
While touted as a move in the right direction, both the guilty verdict and Manezh investigation raised questions about how effective the signals would actually be.
The Investigative Committee’s chief investigator, Vadim Yakovenko, announced last Wednesday that the events unfolding on Manezh Square on the evening of December 11 were organized in revenge for the death of death of Spartak fan Yegor Sviridov, killed in a Dec. 6 brawl. The Manezh investigation focused on five criminal counts – including hooliganism and inciting racial hatred.
The leading suspect was identified as 23-year-old Belorussian national Igor Berezyuk, who rallied fans to Manezh square and even paid 1500 rubles to a minor to shout out nationalist slogans, Kommersant cited Yakovenko’s statement as saying.
But the five suspects arrested in connection with the Manezh unrest were also said to be activists of the banned National Bolshevik Party, whose founder, Eduard Limonov, is also the head of the liberal oppositionist Other Russia movement and an organizers of the liberal Strategy 31 protests.
While experts say that some members of the Other Russia movement were indeed present at the Manezh unrest, those credentials raised questions about who the law enforcement authorities were actually targeting.
“It was a decision to kill two birds with one stone,” Charny said. “To fight nationalism, and to show the National Bolsheviks who’s boss.”
Another problem that both experts and nationalists point to is that the Manezh rally was a spontaneous event – and clear-cut “organizers” are unlikely to be found, let alone brought to justice.
“I don’t believe that there were organizers in the Manezh case,” Charny said. “It was a spontaneous gathering of people.”
Among nationalists – many of whom insist that Tikhonov and Khasis are innocent – there is concern that the government’s measures may force the movement underground and radicalize it further.
A Moscow court ruled to ban the ultra-nationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration on April 18, on grounds that the organization is extremist.
But Vladimir Tor, one of its leaders, believes that may do more harm than good.
“Radical sentiment will increase. If there’s no possibility to conduct legitimate legal nationalist activism, then it will go underground,” he said. “I have been witnessing an increase in violent radicals – and this will continue.”
And Charny, of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, believes the measure will have little effect.
“Last year, they banned Slavyansky Soyuz. Now they banned DPNI. But they’ll probably rename themselves,” he said. “A ban in itself doesn’t change anything. A prison term of five years or more is more effective.”