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Russian nationalists protest Putin, eye mainstream

Associated Press Published: November 4, 2012

"There was no reason to legitimize them," prominent opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov said. "It's like the Nazis in the 1920s — they were marginal until they got support from politicians and businessmen, and it brought the whole of Europe to ruin."

Nationalists staunchly supported Putin for much of his first two presidential terms in 2000-2008, and Putin frequently incorporated nationalist rhetoric in his speeches. After serving a term as prime minister, Putin is now in his third stint as president.

By the end of Putin's second presidential term, racist violence had skyrocketed. More than 100 immigrants were murdered yearly from 2007 to 2009, according to the Sova Center, which monitors hate crimes in Russia.

A crackdown began in 2010 when thousands of nationalist soccer hooligans clashed with riot police outside the Kremlin. Since then, 419 people have been convicted of violent hate crimes — more than in the six preceding years — and the racist murder rate has dropped by about 80 percent, according to Sova.

Prominent nationalist groups such as the Slavic Union and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration were banned for extremism. Krylov is trying to start the National Democratic Party, which he claims is modeled after "not even that conservative" center-right parties in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Sunday's march in Moscow was subdued compared to previous years, when skinheads have attacked migrants and clashed with police. Speakers' most common demand was for the body of the late Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to be removed from a mausoleum near the Kremlin, in contrast to the xenophobic rhetoric that colored past rallies.

Nonetheless, Russian nationalism's future may lie with its crude rank-and-file rather than leaders who pepper their conversations with literary quotations and historical references, said Sova's Natalia Yudina.

"They're not good at speaking to the young, shaven-headed activists," she said. "If you try to ban Nazi salutes and racist chants, you're never going to be popular with this crowd."

Although Sunday's organizers said most participants in the march were ordinary people, skinheads with covered faces and neo-Nazis were highly visible. When a regional nationalist activist gave several fascist salutes, Belov rushed onstage and awkwardly hugged her to stop her from raising her right arm.

Though no violence was reported at the Moscow march, at least 100 people were involved in a brawl in a subway station between nationalist and anti-fascist activists shortly after it ended, the Interfax news agency reported. Police also detained 25 men wearing overcoats emblazoned with swastikas.

About 200 people were arrested for participating in unsanctioned Russian Marches in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.

The rise in nationalist sentiment since the 2008 financial crisis should gather pace if economic conditions worsen in Russia, which relies heavily on oil and gas revenue, said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," he added. "The Kremlin is worried that nationalist sentiment will become uncontrollable."