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Russian campaign 'fueling racism'

A billboard reminds residents of Khabarovsk to vote March 14.
A billboard reminds residents of Khabarovsk to vote March 14.

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MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- A nationalistic tone in campaigning for Russian elections is fueling racism responsible for murders and other violent crimes, the government minister in charge of relations with ethnic minorities said Thursday.

After a 9-year-old girl from former Soviet Tajikistan was knifed to death in St. Petersburg and an African student was also murdered last month, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev this week admitted ultra-nationalist groups were now a real problem.

Thursday, Nationalities Minister Vladimir Zorin said that the general political atmosphere of President Vladimir Putin's Russia was to blame. Putin became president in 2000.

"If young people were ethnically tolerant in the 1990s they are now ethnically phobic," Zorin told journalists, explaining racism was most common among the young.

"In the growth of hate I see echoes of the elections of last year, when a series of candidates and deputies used nationalistic slogans in their election campaign."

Nationalism was catapulted into the spotlight after the success of two nationalist parties -- the newly formed Motherland party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats (LDPR) -- in December's parliamentary election.

Zorin's comments came while campaigning for the presidential election on March 14 was in full swing. Putin is certain to win a second term.

The former Soviet KGB agent is himself often described as a nationalist -- but a moderate one. His efforts to revive national pride through bringing back old Soviet state emblems and crushing Muslim rebels in Chechnya, seem however also to fuel a more rabid vein of nationalistic sentiment.

Foreign students in fear

Deputy interior minister Alexander Chekalin said Thursday that 10,000 crimes were committed against foreigners in 2003, but gave no comparative figures.

Students in Voronezh, a major center for foreign students since Soviet times, went on strike after a 24-year-old medical student from Guinea-Bissau was killed there in broad daylight. They refused to attend classes, saying they were frightened of being the next victim.

Zorin said the xenophobic atmosphere had also been worsened by terrorist attacks such as a bombing on the Moscow metro last month, which killed at least 40 people. A Chechen rebel group claimed responsibility for the attack Monday.

A string of other Chechen suicide bombings has fed the hatred and suspicion felt by many toward Russians and others from the Caucasus, the mountainous area that includes Chechnya.

Darker skinned than the dominant Slavs, they are routinely targeted by police and asked to show documents more frequently than others during supposedly random checks on the street.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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