TARTU, Estonia, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- In a speech Tuesday to Russia's growing ethnic Azerbaijani community, President Vladimir Putin said the appearance of xenophobia in the Russian Federation indicated mistakes in policy and vowed a tough response.
But even as Putin was making this pledge to the Second Congress of the All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress, more incidents of xenophobia were taking place around Russia. The Muslim Web site Islam.ru said the number of such incidents doubled since the tragedy in Beslan, after rising some 400 percent over the previous four years.
The site did not provide a source for those numbers, but various news reports from around Russia this week suggest Putin's acknowledgement reflects Moscow's growing awareness a rising tide of xenophobia across the country threatens to spark more interethnic and inter-confessional violence.
Muslims in major Russian cities have been the victims of xenophobic language and graffiti, but Muslims elsewhere are facing more serious manifestations of this form of hatred. Three cases reported in the past 10 days are especially disturbing. In the first of them, Muslim leaders in both the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus expressed anger at police violence against Muslims in the latter region, Russian news agencies reported Monday.
A delegation from Tatarstan's Muslim community that has been in the North Caucasus for the past week found police there were increasingly harassing young Muslim men, arresting and torturing some of them, and in at least one case beating a Muslim man to death. And it heard complaints from local Muslims that the media are not reporting these incidents, and local officials are doing nothing to stop them.
What makes this trend so frightening, a spokesman for the Middle Volga MSD said, is that it appears to reflect the attitudes of public officials in the region. Militiamen there, the spokesman added, now appear to be classifying as extremists "all those who pray, fast, do not drink, and attempt to live by the norms of Islam."
A second case this week is equally disturbing. On the very day Putin was promising to take action against xenophobia, the Azerbaijani National Cultural Autonomy in Pskov oblast complained to the local electoral commission about the appearance of campaign posters there that, they said, were sparking interethnic tensions, the Pskov news service reported.
One of the posters, put up by supporters of Pskov gubernatorial candidate Aleksei Mitrofanov, said simply "Criminal southerners -- Get out of Pskov Oblast!" Another was even more inflammatory. It featured a man with the features of someone of "Caucasus nationality," sitting in his underwear, drinking vodka and selling watermelons and said the influx of such people was the result of the policies of the incumbent governor.
On Wednesday, the Pskov oblast, or region's electoral commission reviewed the Azerbaijanis' complaint. It refused to order these posters be taken down, claiming there was no evidence these were provoking interethnic tensions or that they represented any assault on ethnic feelings.
But the third development is perhaps the most frightening of all. According to the Russian nationalist Web site rustrana.ru, Christian residents in North Osetia have concluded the local authorities are not doing enough to bring the organizers of the Beslan terrorist attack to justice and consequently have decided to organize a vigilante group, "the Osetin Ku-Klux-Klan."
On of the KKK's organizers told the site his group is not "racist" but rather is committed to dealing with a situation where the authorities have failed the people. "Each of us know that the tragedy [in Beslan] was the result of the inaction of the militia, of bribery of GAI [highway patrol] posts, of people in office who won't take responsibility."
Officials "knew and were silent," he said. But "we must not be silent anymore." And consequently, the group is organizing "to take action on our own."
Up to now, there have been no reports this group has actually done anything, but there is already another disturbing detail in this story: An Interior Ministry official in Vladikavkaz said he and his colleagues did not intend to try to stop "these guys" from taking action. Instead, he said, he personally "would rather like to help them."
Not surprisingly, Muslims in all three places are angry and nervous. And at least in the North Caucasus, some Muslim leaders are doing what they can to prevent this anger from leading to further radicalization and even violence.
Shafig-Khadzhi Pshikhachev, the executive director of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, told Islam.ru he is in constant contact with Muslim leaders in North Osetia and is working to calm the situation.
In an interview posted on Islam.ru on the day Putin was giving his speech in Moscow, Pshikhachev said he believed the Muslim and Christian communities there were mature enough to rise above any differences and to live in peace.
But in a reflection of the level of his own concern, the mufti appealed to the Russian mass media to avoid featuring stories that could inflame the situation. And he called on his fellow Muslims to avoid any reactions to media stories and official behavior that might lead to a spiral of violence.
Quite obviously, all of Russia's Muslims as well as the representatives of other groups are now waiting to see just what "tough measures" Putin plans to take and to find out whether his measures will stop the spread of xenophobia in Russia or, on the contrary, make the situation in Russia even more dangerous.
(Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)