Right-wing violence against foreigners is on the rise in Moscow. President Putin shows concern after several foreign embassies in the Russian capital complain of being targeted.
April 20 in Russia is a dangerous day for African students, emigrants and traders from the Caucasus.
The birthday of Adolf Hitler is an excuse for right-wing nationalist gangs in Moscow to do what skinheads do – roam around menacingly in groups with shorn heads, terrorise and attack foreigners and yell fascist slogans.
According to the Russian authorities, there have been some 100 instances of attacks on foreigners in Moscow alone since the beginning of this year.
About 10 foreigners have been killed so far.
High-profile embassies threatened
But what has further alarmed security forces in Moscow in recent times has been a targeting of foreign embassies and consulates by extremist groups.
Several foreign embassies have demanded that Russian police come down heavier against xenophobic violence.
The press agency Interfax reported that the embassies of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Georgia complained in a letter to the foreign ministry of increasing attacks on foreigners in subways, markets and in discotheques by Russia skinheads.
Several embassies in the Russian capital have also reportedly received letters of threat by radical groups, announcing riots and demonstrations on Hitler’s birthday.
photoarchive.ap Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Security Council meeting in the Moscow Kremlin, Thursday March 29, 2001. Putin on Wednesday strengthened his control over Russia and expanded his power base by naming staunch loyalists to the key jobs of defense and interior ministers. Putin dismissed Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and appointed him to replace Sergei Ivanov as the secretary of the policy-setting Security Council. (AP Photo/ITAR-TASS, Vladimir Rodionov) COMMERCIAL INTERNET OUT NO SALE
Last week, the US embassy warned its citizens in Russia to avoid crowds where gangs of shorn-headed nationalist youth gather.
Putin worried about growing xenophobia
In a sign of how tense the situation in Moscow has become, Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday devoted part of his address to the nation to the rising phenomenon of xenophobia.
Skull tattoo on shaved head of neo nazi, Hagen
"Foreigners are being hounded with fascist and nationalist slogans and symbols, people are being attacked and killed. The rising extremism poses a serious danger to the stability and general security of the country", Putin said in the televised address.
He also announced the creation of a law to combat extremism, just two days before the notorious April 20, the birthday of the Nazi Führer.
Poverty, soccer and mindless violence
The number of skinhead gangs in Russia, modelled on the lines of nationalist organisations in Western Europe are on the rise, especially in the past four or five years.
They mostly comprise disenchanted and poor youth from the former Soviet Union.
Russian authorities also attribute the peak in skinhead violence in April to the soccer season which intensifies in spring.
Last year on April 20, Russian skinheads went on a rampage in an ethnic Azeri street market, damaging stalls and beating traders. A Chechen national was stabbed to death in a suburb of Moscow.
Skinheads salute and shout "Sieg Heil"
In 1998, a few days after Hitler’s birthday on April 20, a group of Russian skinheads smashed the teeth of a black US Marine embassy guard in a park.
On Sunday, about 50 youths attacked a synagogue in Kiev, capital of neighbouring Ukraine, shouting "kill the Jews", beating up Jewish worshippers and breaking windows.
Russian police helpless?
Human rights organisations and political parties in Russia accuse the Russian police of not doing enough to rein in the skinheads.
Right-wing propaganda such as cassettes and literature with the title "Heil Hitler" circulate freely in market places, they say.
And though violent extremists are still in the minority, media reports in Russia say that every Moscow district has its own skinhead scene.
Russian police estimate the number of skinheads and xenophobic youth in the country to be about 10,000.
But even police forces, who for years have put down right-wing violence to "individual vandalism", seem unsettled about the soaring violence.
In an interview with the press agency, dpa, the Head of the Criminal Police Force, General Lieutenant Michail Nikiforow said, "The increase in nationalist sentiment among the youth is disturbing."
This time Russian police are taking no chances on April 20.
Security has been beefed up and the police will be out in full force on the streets of Moscow today.