Friday, February 24, 2006


Living with race hate in Russia.
By Patrick Jackson BBC News website, Moscow.

Juldas Okie Etoumbi, a postgraduate international relations student at Moscow's RUDN university, remembers well his first encounter with a Russian. Gabriel Kotchofa says the number of prosecutions is minute.Standing in a Moscow Metro carriage for the first time, the young Gabonese man was thrown forward when the train started with a jolt and he grabbed a pole to keep his balance, brushing the Russian man's hand. Without a word, the Russian withdrew his hand, produced a handkerchief and proceeded to wipe it demonstratively in front of the other passengers.
Christian, a former electrical engineering student from Cameroon now working in Moscow, was recently assaulted by a group of about 10 teenagers on a Metro train in the city centre. Struck by a bottle on the head, he fell in a pool of blood. The driver kept the carriage doors shut at the next station and police caught three of the gang, but Christian thinks no action was taken. He hit me and I tried to hit him back, but another one struck me from behind - Mukhtar Ahmed Osman
Somali blood on the snow

When Somali civil engineering student Mukhtar Ahmed Osman was beaten unconscious in the snow by a gang of teenagers in a Moscow suburb, nobody came to his aid. Such violence has turned murderous in recent years. In St Petersburg, three Africans have been killed in suspected race attacks since September. Non-African foreign students have also been murdered, but it is the black students who attract most attention from the racists. Juldas, now leader of the African students at RUDN, says "monkey" insults and actual assaults are so frequent that students have ceased reporting them. "We see it as normal now because that's how we live."
Gabriel Anicet Kotchofa, head of the Foreign Students' Association in Russia, offers fellow Africans considering an education in Russia two pieces of advice: "Consider your personal safety" and "Make sure your parents can pay your living costs". Such considerations did not exist when he arrived in Moscow a quarter of a century ago from Benin. No Soviet citizen, he recalls, would have dared raise their hand against a foreigner, and the USSR bore all the costs of its student "guests" from the developing world. Benin was then "building communism", he says, and an education in the Soviet Bloc was a vital chance for poor students without the connections to net a French grant, for instance. After the USSR collapsed, Russia paid no grants to foreign students for five years. A fraction of the system was restored in 1997, and today the number of foreign students in Russia from outside the ex-USSR is barely half the 1991 figure. Some 1,000 African students from 43 states now study at RUDN, Moscow's purpose-built university for foreign students.
Communism may have gone, but the quality of Russian education is apparently still high. "If you are prepared to study, you can get an education here you would not get even in the West," says Juldas. As a professor at Moscow's Gubkin Oil and Gas University, training cadres for such giants of the market-driven economy as Gazprom and Lukoil, Mr Kotchofa is very much at home in the new Russia but is bitter about some post-Soviet "liberties".
One thing democracy brought Russia was the freedom to insult and attack people and be sure of not being punished," he says. He can, he adds, count on his fingers the number of criminals punished for hate crimes and "even the murders are immediately treated as cases of hooliganism". "Because nobody is arrested, it has become pointless to complain to the police."
What worries him especially is that organised groups appear to be inciting the violence with impunity, with slogans like "Russia for the Russians". RUDN students attending faculties off the campus, which has its own police station and security guards, have found the three days around Hitler's birthday in April particularly stressful, with neo-Nazis often turning up to taunt them with Hitler salutes and abuse.
Inna Svyatenko, chairwoman of Moscow City Council's Security Commission, accepts that Moscow has a problem with "groups of hooligans who have in common only a taste for public disorder", and that Africans are particularly at risk. Better protection for foreign students is being discussed, she says, along with the idea of a new city police force to specifically protect foreigners. Student leaders report that the worst of the racist violence is now in the provinces, but believe this is largely because of new anti-terrorism measures in the capital. Ms Svyatenko attributes some of the problem to a common misconception that foreign students are taking college places away from Russians.

Total about 103,000, including 43,000 from other ex-Soviet states
About 15,000 are African
Some 15,000 former students are staying on illegally, including about 5,000 Africans
sSource: Foreign Students' Association in Russia

Some suggest violence against foreigners may also be a sublimation of aggression towards Caucasian ethnic groups such as Chechens and Azerbaijanis, regarded as harder targets. Moscow sociologist Nikolai Fyodorov sees a deep-rooted psychological need for an "enemy figure" dating back to the Cold War. And he says irresponsible Russian journalism adds to the dangerous mix, with television crime reports regularly identifying the ethnic background of suspects. A decade ago, when foreign students were struggling to survive without Russian state funding, African student drug dealers were in the spotlight. "Back then Africans were in a desperate social situation, and when a person needs money that badly they may agree to do anything," says Juldas.
Even today, one in 10 Africans at RUDN has to live on a daily budget of 15 roubles ($0.50, £0.30), the price of a loaf and two eggs or a single ticket on the Metro. But speaking as a student rep, Juldas says the drug problem appears to have all but disappeared, and new students are warned about the dangers of being recruited by dealers. "Sadly, however, the stereotype of the drug dealer in the media here is the black student," he adds.
Some students have simply abandoned their studies and left. The Foreign Students' Association knows of Vietnamese, South Koreans and Africans who "went home in fear of their lives". But some have reacted by challenging racial stereotypes through an educational programme. With the support of Nashi, a youth movement set up by supporters of President Vladimir Putin, and funding from African embassies, 20 groups of black students have been visiting Moscow schools since September to explain about African culture. "We give free classes on subjects like daily life in Africa, or African weddings, and the schoolchildren are very receptive," says Juldas. "We get letters from schools to come and see them. It is fun for us and it teaches people about our culture. This should influence the mentality of the young."
Many believe that the existence of unique institutions like RUDN is a cause worth defending. "For a prospective diplomat, what other university brings together 132 countries?" asks Juldas. "We have students here from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti - countries with territorial conflicts. But when students come to RUDN, they form a single homeland. It is like a mini-United Nations. Such an experience is priceless."


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