The BBC titled article, Africans ‘under siege’ in Moscow, reflects a grave problem that Russia is experiencing at the moment, such a degree of gravity in fact that this issue has surprisingly garnered very little international attention.
I remember being exposed to the problem through a New York Times article I read in 2004 or so. I remember a picture of an African, his head resting in his hands, while the article described his struggle for survival, or having to deal with constant death threats of being lynched, as well as witnessing his friends being brutally attacked openly in the streets. The police just ignored it.
Working in the study abroad office, we were delicately trained to warn African-Americans, or even students of a dark skin color, who were interested in studying abroad in Russia of the consequences they may face. I remember one such encounter of complete disbelief. His interest in Russian history spurred his interest to learn the language. The natural next step was to study abroad. I remember feeling as if I were transported back in time, and having to tell him that we only had one position for a man of his stature on the collegiate basketball team, and it was already filled.
The situation in Russia cannot be termed ‘latent’ racism, rather it is violent, bloody, and anyone that appears to be ‘non-Russian’ is susceptible. I found a two year old Times Magazine article, depicting how college students placed a bomb in a small café, and killed many “non-white foreigners.”
Surprisingly, even with the new Obama administration, there has been little, if hardly any, condemnation by a President of the United States on levels of racism that are happening right now. Instead, dialogue is focused on realist, or geopolitical concerns, such as the Missile Defense Shield, NATO’s expansion, Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and decreasing the number of nuclear arms between the two countries. Though all these issues are important, the United States however has a great opportunity to control the rising of a dangerous form of nationalism, which is even more important. Though Georgia was swiftly defeated by Russian forces last year, the conflict however revealed the poor shape Russia’s military is in. Its weapons systems are outdated, and despite talks from Medvedev on Russia’s desire to further modernize its forces, it will take decades, not to mention large amounts of cash to be on the same par as the United States or even Europe. Thus, if history has taught us anything in the past 100 years, it is that nationalism can be an even more dangerous force than any military or weapon. Just as Nazism transformed the most democratic regime that Europe ever had into a militant, racist regime that systematically murdered ethnic minorities, if Russia does not put a stop to these violent acts of racism, nationalism could once again acquire a stranglehold in the region and change the nature of the continent.
Europe is also in a good position, if not better, to influence Russia positively. Russia is already a member country of the Council of Europe, an organization that promotes human rights and the rule of law and from which the European Union took its flag. Unfortunately, just as is the case with the U.S., the EU’s major efforts with Russia are in terms of securing its energy, and dissuading Russia from “turning the valve,” just as it has done in the past with Ukraine, a major transit country of natural gas into the rest of Europe. With the United Kingdom being the obvious exception, as well as some of the former Eastern European countries, continental Europe only resorts to crude language and warnings that are not usually followed. Instead, politicians seem more willing to accommodate Russia out of fear of waking up the next morning and not having any hot water.
To be sure, this is by far not an easy task. Russian politicians are using this emergence of nationalism to further their own domestic goals, as well as promoting an aggressive Russian foreign policy. A desire to return to the days where Russia was the other superpower, a Russia that could act freely in its own spheres of influence, is strong among the Russian public and elite. However, every country must have some form of immigration. Immigrants are able to fill in certain gaps, by filling jobs that were traditionally occupied by ethnic Russians. Moreover, as the United States is a primary example, if Russia reforms its higher education institutions it will be able to attract highly advanced workers, such as engineers and doctors, and take advantage of its geographic location next to China. If it continues to allow such rampid, horrifying acts of violence against immigrants, it won’t have a chance in this era of globalization, and Russia’s economy will only worsen, as energy prices seem to be stabilizing and may further decrease in the future. Though Russia’s foreign policy seems aggressive if not militant, domestically it faces severe problems that could destabilize the region. Both the Obama administration and the EU need to work together and take a unified stance and work with Russia in combatting violent racism. Most importantly, both actors must put this issue on the table, and acknowledge the threat that nationalism poses, outside of strategic, geopolitical concerns.