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Russian Human Rights Defenders Targeted by Extremist

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Galina Kozhevnikova
Vice-director of SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis

Observing marches and demonstrations staged by Russian ultranationalist groups has become a tradition in my work as the deputy director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. This year, however, I was taken aback by a sarcastic chant "Heil Galina Kozhevnikova!" during the May Day march of the neo-Nazi group Russkij Obraz ("the Russian Image"), organized by the Ostankino Tower in the northeast of Moscow. While the SOVA Center has made its name monitoring and collecting data on racially motivated attacks in Russia, the right-wing militants have also begun paying closer attention to those of us who study them.

In 2004, we were shocked by the brazen murder of Nikolai Girenko, an ethnologist from Saint Petersburg State University, known for his human rights activities promoting tolerance and discrimination and counteracting ultranationalist extremism in Russia. Having received death threats throughout the latest stages of his public career--he was an expert in numerous court cases involving extremist groups, Professor Girenko was brutally murdered at the entrance to his apartment on June 19, 2004. Five years following Girenko's murder Russian human rights defenders continue to be attacked and threatened--often with impunity--by private citizens, many of whom are associated with ultranationalist groups.

My colleague, SOVA's founder and director Alexander Verkhovsky, has become accustomed to operating under threat. Many neo-Nazi 'activists' know where he lives and have made threatening visits to his apartment in the past, including several times this year. It is clear that our work is well-known to the ultranationalist radicals, some of whom use internet blogs and forums to respond to our analyses. Our latest book Radical Russian Nationalism, which profiles most of the country's radical groups, was noticed and widely discussed online. Skinheads also never miss opportunities to attend SOVA's press conferences, and as a result our public presentations must now be guarded by policemen. In April, both Alexander and I received a small grant to temporarily leave the anxious atmosphere of Moscow. We settled in the New York office of Human Rights First (HRF), an organization with which we have cooperated closely in our efforts to combat hate crime in Russia.

Escaping Russia for a month allows us to concentrate on our research, as well as to continue raising awareness of Russia's hate crime crisis among American policy makers in Washington, DC. SOVA and Human Rights First believe that now is an opportune time for the United States and Russia to seek common ground in their efforts to combat hate-motivated violence in a framework of bi- and multilateral cooperation. Russian prosecutors and law enforcement officials can learn much from their American counterparts, who have significant experience in identifying bias motivations, properly investigating and documenting the evidence, and successfully prosecuting hate crime cases in jury trials. As President Obama is gearing up for his first visit to Russia in July, it is important that the Summit's agenda not be limited by energy security, nuclear proliferation, and arms control. Undoubtedly, these issues are crucial, but a true constructive partnership requires additional pillars of cooperation--namely attention to human rights and the rule of law.

The problem of hate violence is shared not only by Russia and the U.S., but across Europe and the Former Soviet Union--indeed throughout the world. Human Rights First's research points to a rise of hate crime in many parts of Europe. At the same time, governments are failing to adequately respond to this wave of violence: only a few countries have established strong mechanisms of combating hate crimes. Civil society organizations, led by Human Rights First and the SOVA Center, have recently presented their comprehensive recommendations to the 56 Member States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), advising government and public officials to adopt a comprehensive approach to hate crime: condemn individual attacks when they occur, strengthen criminal laws, train police and prosecutors, and improve data collection and monitoring of incidents. In Russia, the latter function currently lies squarely on the shoulders of SOVA's 8-person staff. What we are able to document is likely only the tip of the iceberg, but the almost one hundred racist murders that we do record annually is by far the highest in Europe.