Moscow, Russia - This week was marked by a tragic turn in the ongoing confrontation between Russia and Georgia. Tengiz Togonidze, a 48-year-old Georgian migrant worker died in a Moscow airport as he was awaiting deportation.
Deportations of ethnic Georgians, identified by the police as illegal immigrants, have gone on for about three weeks; according to various reports, at least 700 have been deported so far. Togonidze had been kept for five days in a detention center in St. Petersburg. After that he was transported to Moscow with a group of other allegedly illegal immigrants. Togonidze had had trouble breathing because of his asthma, but, according to media reports, he was denied fresh air.
The relations between Russia and Georgia began to deteriorate seriously after Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgian president in the course of Rose revolution in 2003. The Russian government has strongly supported -- politically, economically and otherwise -- two breakaway territories that Saakashvili is trying to bring back under Georgia control. The Kremlin has been constantly exasperated by the U.S. support of Saakashvili and his unambiguously pro-American policies, as well as his desire to join NATO. It doesn't help that Saakashvili is an arrogant politician, whose rhetoric is often provocative and irresponsible. Russia has repeatedly responded with toughened policies toward Georgia, even though compared to Russia, Georgia is tiny and weak. Recent moves include trade sanctions, as Russia imposed a ban on wine and mineral water imports from Georgia.
About three weeks ago Georgia arrested four Russian servicemen on charges of espionage. Russia responded with a flurry of angry and aggressive language. Russian commentators were talking of imminent war with Georgia. The servicemen were shortly released with the help of Western mediation, but the anti-Georgian campaign in Russia did not subside. Instead in a matter of a few days Russia became the scene of government-sponsored political xenophobia. A government offical announced that Georgians were the most criminal ethnic group in Russia. State television was filled with stories about Georgian criminals operating in the Russian territory. Georgians became the target of a stepped-up campaign of deportations of illegal immigrants.
Over the years of post-Communist developments, ethnic and racial intolerance has steadily grown in Russia -- many factors contributed to this deplorable development, including the war in Chechnya. The xenophobic sentiments are invariably registered by public opinion polls, and the government has done nothing to change this trend. In fact, it may be argued that irresponsible or incompetent governance has even made things worse. But this outburst of anti-Georgia xenophobia is different, because this time it was incited by the government itself. And the public readily accepted the anti-Georgian policy and rhetoric. The polls taken in mid-October showed that 74 percent of the Russian people approved of stepped-up inspections of Georgian businesses, restaurants, and casinos; 38 percent said that Georgians should be deported from Russia, regardless of whether they are Georgian nationals or citizens of Russia.
I don't think the Kremlin decided to take advantage of the xenophobic sentiments and use this as a basis of its policies. This time the campaign of anti-Georgian hostility looks more like an emotionally driven response: a desire to take revenge and to punish arrogant Georgia. Whatever the Russia's motives, however, the encouragement of xenophobia by the government is a very dangerous precedent. It has already cost at least one human life. Today it was reported that another Georgian deportee died of a heart attack, the circumstances are not yet fully clear. More human losses may follow as a result of bad treatment of the deportees or as new incidents of ethnic violence which have unfortunately become increasingly common in today's Russia.
Capitalizing on ethnic hatred and xenophobia is an easy temptation for politicians. Historical examples are too many, and the consequences are just too horrible to recall. The Russian people are dangerously responsive to xenophobic impulses, and the government has come dangerously close to exploiting xenophobic energy. But once you get on this tiger, it may be impossible to get off.
And talking about the political fallout of the anti-Georgian campaign, it threatens to further aggravate the unresolved conflicts over the secessionist territories of Georgia, deepen the confrontation between Russia and Georgia and further complicate the relations between Russia and the West.
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