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The Russian Trump Card

By Yaffa Fredrick

UNITED NATIONS—Combatting discrimination is a goal that all western democracies want to pursue. Yet, on Nov. 19, when the United Nations introduced Resolution A/C.3/70/L.59: “Elimination of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance,” Canada, Palau, the United States, and Ukraine voted against it. And with the exception of Serbia, every European nation abstained from voting.

Russia had put forward the draft resolution a week prior. With the support of such countries as North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, and Eritrea, the Russian delegation expressed its concerns that there was a global rise in neo-Nazism, a belief system which it argued contributes to other forms of discrimination, including xenophobia and racism.

Given Russia’s record of discrimination, particularly toward the gay and lesbian community as well as ethnic minorities, its sudden need to promote a more open and tolerant global community seems at odds with its state interests. And its cosponsors—a list of the world’s most intolerant nations—make the discussion around the resolution that much more perplexing.

Andrew Nagorski, former Newsweek Moscow bureau chief and author of the forthcoming book The Nazi Hunters, however, believes the Russians are acting in accordance with their national objectives. He explains, “No matter how brutal the practices of the Kremlin were, or how clearly they made a mockery of all the rhetoric about combating oppression and racism and promoting international peace, the one trump card they tried to play was, as in World War II, that Russia's leaders were and are supposedly devoted to fighting ‘fascism.’”

Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs and associate dean at the New School, shares Nagorski’s sentiment, adding, “Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is framed in Nazi terms, and the West—the U.S.—specifically supports the side that Russia deems fascist.”

It isn’t particularly difficult to substantiate the Russian claim that Ukraine has strong neo-Nazi ties. Petro Poroschenko, president of Ukraine, has recognized both the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its offshoot, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Though both parties fought against the Germans and the Soviets during World War II, they are widely considered to have collaborated with the Nazis and contributed to the deaths of many Jews in Ukraine. In fact, following Poroschenko’s decision to recognize both parties, Dr. Efrain Zuroff, Wiesenthal Center director for Eastern European Affairs, condemned the president, arguing that he was turning “Hitler’s henchmen into heroes despite their active and zealous participation in the mass murder of innocent Jews.”

Khruschcheva notes, though, that the Ukrainian president’s support for parties with fascist roots does not necessarily mean the government is anti-Semitic. “West Ukraine at times is openly pro-Nazi Germany of the past because it was against the Soviet Union. It’s sort of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In a textbook case of politics making strange bedfellows, Ukrainians of today look fondly upon parties of yesteryear that dared to challenge Soviet, now Russian, authority.

Though the Russian delegation may have singled out Ukraine in its brief remarks on Nazism, the real target was the United States, a key Ukrainian supporter. When the delegation discussed a rise in racism, it was speaking to the United States. Russian newspapers are notorious for running stories of police brutality against African Americans, arguing that the American government is hypocritical to espouse equal rights rhetoric when its law enforcement specifically targets individuals on the basis of skin color.

And while there is some truth in such Russian propaganda, Russia framed the resolution in such a way to ensure the United States would have to vote against it. Point 12 calls upon states “to take adequate steps… aimed at the prevention of hate speech.” And Point 32 advises states to employ the Internet in the struggle against discrimination. Both clauses, though seemingly benign, threaten free speech, a core tenet of the American constitution. They provide the government with the power to determine what speech can and should be censored — and leave little recourse for the individual espousing provocative ideologies.

As Nagorski says, this resolution, virtually identical to one the Russians introduced a year prior, serves a key goal—“keeping alive the myth that Russia’s rulers are the enlightened progressives of our era, and those who oppose them must be fascists, neo-Nazis, and racists.” The Russian Foreign Ministry, quick to share the resolution with the Russian public, is subsequently able to justify Russian use of force against internal or external enemies of the state, be they opposition forces in Moscow, Kiev, or Washington D.C.

Despite American opposition, the resolution passed with 126 member states voting in favor. Though it’s unlikely the resolution will lead to a discernible global shift in policy toward discrimination, its passage is symbolic of a larger division within the U.N., pinning Russia and its communist and authoritarian allies against the United States and its democratic partners. And for the second year in a row, it appears Russia has won the public relations game, as U.S. officials scramble to justify their seemingly problematic vote.

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Yaffa Fredrick is managing editor of World Policy Journal. She reports on political and economic issues at the United Nations.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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