Thursday 23 February
|Beyond Tolerance- The fight against Xenophobia in Russia|
On the first weekend of April, a training session for student organizations and young leaders was held in Pyatorgorsk. The topic of discussion? Interethnic Tolerance. Being a foreigner myself, I had no idea what to expect. Living in Moscow, it is very evident that a clear line has been drawn between Russians and their neighbours to the south living in the Caucasus Region. But the fact of the matter is this particular case of prejudice is just the wrapping. Intolerance in Russia can be traced back to the mid-1990s where a rise in hate crime against other ethnicities and religions perpetrated by skinhead groups, the dire situation in Chechnya, and various other events can be highlighted. Gruesome acts of extremism and terrorism have been committed against minorities for years. The events that took place in December in Moscow on Manege Square demonstrate there is a vital need to bring the problem of intolerance and xenophobia to the forefront of discussion.
In a 2005 study, Mikhail A. Alexseev, an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department of San Diego State University, presented evidence supporting the fact that youths between the age of 18-25, who were socialized and culturalized in the Post-Soviet Era, are more likely to deny that intolerance and xenophobia are a problem in Russia than those over 40. The younger age group is also more likely to downplay the threat that extremist groups play in interethnic violence. Because of these statistics, it is of the utmost importance to target this age group in regards to the promotion of multiculturalism and the debunking of exclusionist theories. As brought up at the training conference, Russia has the tools to combat the social acceptance of intolerance. Mass media (especially the internet), the education system and youth groups can all play key roles.
On the first day of the conference, participants were asked to step forward and explain what tolerance personally meant to them. Everyone who spoke agreed on an important point: There is no doubt that intolerance lies at the root of ethnical clashes but the question was whether tolerance was the answer? What does tolerance really mean? To them it seemed tolerance was not the right goal.
The word tolerance brings to mind 'putting up with differences'. Specifically, to bear or endure cultures different from our own. But is that enough? The answer from these young leaders was a resounding no. Tolerance hits to close to a concealed dislike of a different culture. Aims should be shifted towards acceptance, understanding and respecting of minorities, the deconstruction of stereotypes, the embracing of differences and the promotion of cooperation and friendship. Intolerance is the problem of not only the government but society as well.
Nationalist movements have become more popular among youth groups in Russia this past decade. Unfortunately, such movements have often become the hunting ground for extremist groups. At the conference, participants discussed why youths are drawn to extremist groups. One main reason discussed was the growing disparity between classes. The majority of labour migration to Russia is coming from areas such as Moldova, Ukraine, Transcaucasia and other former Soviet areas. This only increases interethnic tension because most youths involved in extremist groups consider themselves underprivileged and are often uneducated and unemployed. The Russian Center of Public Opinion released a report stating that resounding 82% of Russians in Saint Petersburg think that immigrants have taken their jobs, while a slightly less 60% of Muscovites agree. Poor standards of living clearly contribute to the hatred of foreigners, but clearly there are other factors influencing society as well.
Participants were asked to describe the stereotypical Russian and Caucasus male and female. Discussion ensued and the typical vodka-totting Russian was compared to the lavash-loving Caucasian. However light the conversation was kept an important fact was brought up- most stereotypes talked about were not altogether negative in nature, and the fact of the matter is negative stereotypes about other cultures are widespread and harmful. These stereotypes provide the fertile ground in which xenophobic attitudes can be planted. Mass Media is partly responsible for the spreading of xenophobic sentiments through the reporting of news in a way that fosters stereotypes.
At a meeting in February of this year, President Medvedev said that the government needs "to optimise the state grant allocation system, including the state grants allocated by the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media. We must do more to encourage the creation of media products aimed at consolidating interethnic and interfaith harmony."
It is evident that the media in Russia still harbours roots of racism through the consistent emphasis of the ethnicity of a perpetrator, especially if he or she is of Caucasian descent, less so if they are ethnically white. A resounding example of this is illustrated by the peaceful gathering turned violent in December on Manege Square when a memorial for a football fan who was killed by a rival team's fan turned violent with the encouragement of extreme nationalist groups. The corresponding reports about the riot focused mainly on the fact that the alleged killer of the fan was from the Caucasus and had been released after his arrest which prompted the retaliation of angry protestors against Russian authorities. What many reports failed to report on were the random violent acts that were committed against people of non-Slavic descent in the days following, some of which were recorded by bystanders and put on Youtube. Mass media should play an important role in denouncing xenophobia and ethnical intolerance by raising public awareness of the destructive actions of these extremist groups.
Medvedev has also emphasized that the 'communication between cultures' should begin in schools and universities. The opportunity for intercultural dialogue for students organized by nongovernmental organizations and clubs, such as the conference in Pyatorgorsk, should be promoted and supported by the government. Youth and university clubs and organizations weigh too little in the publics' opinion due to their social insignificance. With the acknowledgement of this fact by the government, hopefully they will begin to grow in importance and influence.
The conference, brought together around 25 students and organizers from different regions of Russia and a few, like myself, from outside of the country. The idea behind this conference, for some, may be seen as too idealistic. It is important to keep in mind that change can start with a small group of people but it needs to be relentlessly pursued. The issue with solving the problem of intolerance is that it cannot be done in one fell swoop. Perhaps the first and hardest step is to set an example for our own generation that intolerance and racism is socially unacceptable. The next step needs to involve the state, which for too long has fostered a patriotic sentiment that has fuelled the growth of xenophobia. Recently, Medvedev has spoken publicly, supporting 'interethnic unity' and multiculturalism. His words are politically pretty but youth groups need to continue to petition the government for change in policy. As of now, there are no adequate laws against discrimination or racism in place. But as said by Medvedev, these things do not happen overnight.
It is meeting young leaders like the ones who participated in Pyatorgorsk that can give one hope for a future where cooperation and multiculturalism is possible.