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Georgians Claim Police Harassment in Russia

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, California's most notorious street gangs singing in harmony.

BRAND: First, some disharmony in Russia. Russia is cracking down on what President Vladimir Putin calls illegal immigration from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. That means a lot of Georgians who've settled in Russia are being deported. Georgian authorities call it ethnic cleansing.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: There are over 100 ethnic Georgian students enrolled at central Moscow's School No. 1331.

(Soundbite of school)

FEIFER: But fewer than half on the roll call are attending classes. School director Anna Ketaseyivsa(ph) says parents began keeping their children at home two weeks ago, after Moscow police asked schools to turn over lists of children with Georgian sounding last names.

Ms. ANNA KETASYIVSA (Director, Moscow School No. 1331): (Through translator) It's a state of fear. Parents are worried that their children will be snatched on their way to school.

FEIFER: Officials later backed away from investigating schoolchildren. But the tax police and health inspectors are raiding the city's popular Georgian restaurants, markets, and other Georgian-run businesses, many of which have been shut down. And hundreds of Georgians, who officials say came here illegally, are being deported by the planeload.

The Kremlin says Georgia is a bandit state and their actions against Georgians are aimed at stopping illegal activity. But they also say their moves were prompted by Georgia's arrest of four military officers on spying charges last month. Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov accused Tbilisi of having taken hostages.

Mr. BORIS GRYZLOV (Russian Parliamentary Speaker): (Through translator) We believe Georgia's policies of provocation amount to state terrorism and that all Russia's measures to combat that terrorism are justified.

FEIFER: Tbilisi released the Russian officers soon after they were arrested, but an outraged Moscow began an economic blockade of its poverty-stricken southern neighbor.

The Kremlin cut all transportation links, mail routes and bank transfers to Georgia. Moscow has long been upset by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempts to join NATO and other pro-Western policies. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently accused him of stoking anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia.

Foreign Minister SERGEI LAVROV (Russia): (Through translator) We can't ignore insults towards us on the highest levels, including personal insults and rhetoric about how Georgia is surrounded by enemies.

FEIFER: But many members of Moscow's large Georgian communities say they're victims of outright racism. Natalia Carchava(ph), a Georgian resident of Moscow, says police on the streets are stopping everyone they believe looks Georgian.

Ms. NATALIA CARCHAVA (Georgian Resident of Moscow): (Through translator) Even those with all their documents in order are afraid to go out on the streets. Some of my friends are being held in horrible conditions at a deportation center.

FEIFER: Even prominent Georgians are being targeted. Grigory Chkhartishvili is one of Russia's best loved writers, who publishes novels under the pseudonym Boris Akunin. He says the tax police have opened a criminal investigation against his publisher.

Mr. GRIGORY CHKHARTISHVILI (Author): (Through translator) The most frightening thing isn't the campaign against Georgians, but President Vladimir Putin's words. He spoke of the special rights of the native Russian population.

FEIFER: Putin made his remarks during a televised meeting with ministers earlier this month. He ordered them to restore Soviet-era quotas on foreigners working in shops and markets. Putin said Russians need to be protected from criminal groups with an ethnic flavor. Chkhartishvili says such rhetoric signals a new stage of Kremlin policy making, driven by hardliners who've recently taken the upper hand.

Mr. CHKHARTISHVILI: (Through translator) It means the hawks have finally won out in Putin's circle, and the anti-Georgian campaign is a demonstration of their victory to everyone.

(Soundbite of children singing)

FEIFER: Back at School No. 1331, the remaining Georgian students sing in their native language. Teachers say they don't know when worried parents of the other children will let them return to school, but they do know a number of students whose families have already been deported won't be coming back.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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