SOVA Center Combats Hate Crimes and Extremism in Russia

Hate crimes and hate speech are on the rise in Russia.  According to statistics compiled by the Information and Analytical Center “SOVA,” 87 people were killed in Russia as a result of hate motivated violence in 2008.  The number of injured is reported as 378, but with the comment that statistics for the North Caucasus, where such violence is on the increase, is excluded for lack of ability to compile and verify. 

Compiling statistics and tracking instances of hate crimes is just one of the activities of the Information and Analytical Center “SOVA.”  Founded in 2002 by staff of the Panorama Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group, and led by longtime rights activist Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the group determined to focus on the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in Russia in society as well as within official institutions.  Religion and its role in society and politics is also an area of research where SOVA has produced valuable analysis.   In the past few years, SOVA has become the leading source of expertise on these issues in Russia. 

Part of SOVA’s routine work includes monitoring of the press.  In the absence of clearly defined libel laws in Russia, the state and business interest controlled media tend to reflect the authoritarian tendencies of the owners.  In a country where the media is still regarded by the ruling elite as an instrument of propaganda, nationalistic and populist messages undermine any nascent democratic developments.  SOVA has been particularly active in an area fraught with misunderstandings and deliberate manipulations—the definition of “extremism.”  In its analysis of Russian federal laws on combating extremism, SOVA has provided expert analysis highlighting areas of legitimate concern for potential terrorist activity, but also showing how the legislation has been written for use as an instrument of political pressure and manipulation, particularly against nongovernmental organizations and individuals who are not sanctioned by the government. 

SOVA’s materials have been used by independent analysts and reporters and have also reached various government offices in Russia.  The Center is actively involved in the Working Group on Opposing Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination of the President’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, the Expert Council of the Human Rights Ombudsman, the State Duma Working Group on Opposing Extremism, and two commissions of the Public Chamber. The Center’s expertise is such that it is able to influence deliberations within these bodies despite being independent of the government. 

With NED support, SOVA has become a leader in the field, and has been able to convene roundtables of organizations in Moscow working on the same issues and reach out to young people in the regions who are interested in learning how to monitor and combat extremism and fascism.  The Center maintains an informative award-winning web-site www.sova-center.ru.

SOVA has become the premiere center for publications on anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination in Russia and its materials are used by the Council of Europe and the United Nations. The Center publishes books as well a special reports and periodic monitoring reports.  By providing such a wealth of objective information, SOVA is making a contribution to changing the political culture in Russia, despite overwhelming obstacles. 

As the global economic crisis continues to spread, its repercussions in Russia are likely to increase the sense of frustration and hopelessness that is often at the root of violence against racial, ethnic and religious minorities.  SOVA is well poised to continue working with both civic activists and governmental officials.  Reporting on the rise of neo-Nazi activities recently, SOVA itself has been the victim of threats from these groups.