2006/05/06

Dark-Skinned Foreigners in Russia Blighted

By HENRY MEYER, Associated Press Writer
Fri May 5, 4:46 PM ET


MOSCOW - As a black man in Russia, Gabriel Anicet Kotchofa knows life means always being home by 9 p.m., never using public transit and hearing abusive remarks when he goes out in public with his white wife.

"Sometimes I even go to the shop with my wife and we go separately, so nobody knows that we are together," the native of Benin says.

Still, his experience has been milder than that of many blacks, Asians and dark-skinned Caucasians in Russia — he hasn't been killed, maimed or even attacked.

"I'm a very lucky person. I have never been aggressed, because I know where to go, when to go and how to behave myself," said Kotchofa, an academic.

Race-based attacks are rising sharply in Russia, a reflection of the xenophobia that was under the surface in Soviet times. In 2005 alone, 31 murders and 382 assaults were race-connected, according to the Moscow-based Sova human rights center.

Already this year, 14 people have been killed in racial attacks.

The attacks hit especially hard at natives of Third World countries who have come to Russia to study, because of the country's comparatively low tuition costs or because they are blocked from studying in the West by stringent visa regimes.

A few months after arriving from Gabon in 1999 for studies at People's Friendship University in Moscow, Juldas Okie Etoumbia was shocked by the beating death of a Guinean student in their dormitory. The victim had refused to open the door for a cleaning lady in the early hours of the morning and she returned with several men who bludgeoned him with a hammer.

But Etoumbia, 28, was determined to follow through with studies that he hopes will lead to a career as a diplomat.

"There are times when I think I should have never come to this country. But you realize that you came for a noble cause, to get an education, and you are obliged to go through with it," he said.

Although he said he's never been attacked, he's lost count of the insults tossed at him. Once, traveling on the Moscow subway, he lost his grip and brushed the hand of a fellow-passenger — who demonstratively took out a handkerchief and wiped his hand clean.

In the Soviet era, when the Kremlin was promoting the worldwide spread of Communism, the government strongly preached racial tolerance and offered generous scholarships that brought tens of thousands of Third World students to Russia to study.

Kotchofa came in 1981 and says at that time, dark-skinned foreigners could go out day or night in perfect safety. Now a professor at the Gubkin Oil and Gas Institute, he laments the post-Soviet rise of nationalist politicians who openly spread xenophobic views. He suggests that certain "forces" have a vested interest in the proliferation of racial attacks.

Some observers claim the Kremlin has encouraged the growth of nationalism in order to cast itself as a bulwark against the far-right as parliamentary and presidential elections loom in 2007 and 2008.

"Our political leaders have an interest in this issue remaining prominent in the run-up to the election campaign," said Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights.

President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that xenophobia is a problem and the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi has lent its support to the anti-racism campaign.

But prosecutions are rare, with many hate crimes treated as hooliganism, an offense that brings only short sentences. In one such case, seven teenagers were sentenced this year to terms of 1 1/2 to 5 1/2 years in prison in the stabbing death of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg.

The racist climate in Russia is deterring foreigners who want to come here for their education, according to Kotchofa. Some have gone home, and the number of foreign students from outside the former Soviet Union today is 60,000 — less than half the number in 1991, partly because Russian government scholarships are much scarcer.

Still, with university fees at $3,000-4,000 a year, Russia remains the only viable option for many foreigners.

Mustafa Mohamed ElHassan from Sudan, who is to complete a doctorate in civil engineering this year after 10 years in Russia, is profoundly grateful for his education.

But he says he is impatient to leave, not least because of the rampant racism.

"Life now is tough. It's not like 10 years ago," he said.

The head of the Arab student association at People's Friendship, ElHassan advises people to go out only in groups and never late at night, but like many others he must leave the relative safety of the campus every day to travel long distances by subway to faculties elsewhere in Moscow.

Etoumbia, the aspiring diplomat from Gabon, regrets the rise in violence because it undermines the melting-pot experience at People's Friendship University.

"We have 132 countries represented here, it's like a mini United Nations. If you are willing to study here, you can get a first-class education," he said.

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