Thursday, September 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Failure to Support Ethnic Identities Provides an Opening for Islamism and Disintegration, Daghestani Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 19 – Moscow’s failure to support ethnic identities in the North Caucasus has undermined the ways such identities regulate behavior and opened the way to radicalization and Islamism, and if the authorities do not change course, this deformation of identities in the region is likely to call Russian control there into question.

            Those are just some of the conclusions that Ibragim Rashidov, a senior scholar at Daghestan State University, in an article which is entitled “The Erosion of Ethnic Identification and Its Consequences for the North Caucasus Region” and draws on theories like those developed by Erik Erikson (

            Many see the actions of North Caucasians in Russian cities and elsewhere as a manifestation of their ethnic identities, but Rashidov argues that what people are actually observing is the result of the deformation and erosion of traditional identities and hence the looseningof the control functions such identities have.

            The forces of globalization, on the one hand, and of Soviet policies, on the other, have changed the nature of ethnic self-identification in the Caucasus, creating a crisis for both individuals and groups and leading in both to “frustration, depression, aggressiveness and internal conflict.”

            “The threat of the loss of ethnic identity and even more its loss is conceived by bearers of this identity as a threat to the existence of the ethnos and its annihilation,” the Makhachkala scholar argues. And the energies released in this process are manifested in many negative ways, including “armed conflicts and wars.”

            The state must understand and then combat this loss of identity if it is to maintain stability, but the Soviet and even more the Russian state has shown by its actions that it does not understand the relationship between identities and stability and has taken actions that undermine identities of most if not all ethnic groups.

            Despite its claims, Rashidov says, “the Russian Federation is in essence a unitary state, in many espects harsher in that regard than was the USSR. Neither the organization of the state … nor its legislation takes into account the poly-ethnicnature and poly-cultural nature of the population.”

In Daghestan, for example,”only Russian successfully fulfills the government function in he full sense.” No other language does so, and increasingly members of other ethnic groups learn about themselves and interact with others not with the self-confidence of having their own language but precisely because they do not.

An “entire generation of people” who are members of one or another ethnos but do not know their native language and who speak Russian, dress in the European way, and are cut off from their national identities and traditions has emerged. “Who are these people,” Rashidov quotes Daghestani sociologist A-N. Z. Dibirov as asking.

And he cites Dibirov’s answer: “To the extent that thesepeoples who do not have their own information channels receive information from other states [via another language and tradition], what is formed among them is not a national but a colonial mentality which ignoes their own spiritual values.”

But this trend has an unexpected outcome, Rashidov continues.While “objectively” such people are less ethnically distinct from others than they were, “subjectively” they are more sensitive to how others see them and react accordingly.  That is what is known in sociology, he says, as “the ethnic paradox.”

Specifically, “the loss of language and the loss of a name is the loss of identity. The erosion of ethnic identification inevitably lead to the destruction of ethnic and moral barriers and restrictions in society both at the level of the individual and at that of society as a whole.” These people in Daghestan are now being called “the 15th nationality,” a group caught between traditional identities and a new one and acting more emotionally than rationally and thus “easily manipulated” by other.

“It is obvious,” Rashidov says, “that precisely the representatives of this ‘nationality’ are today the main objets of the religious expansion of Islam to the extent that subjective ethnic self-identification, deprived of its objective foundations is involved in a search for firmer bases of identity” and is more hostile to the cultural values of others.

“In ethnic cuture, the most important role belongs to tradition,” and this “tradition fulfills the function of a selection mechanism relative to innovations.” Some new things are accepted but others are rejected. When the tradition itself is weakened or even destroyed, then there is little left to restrain members of the group from radical shifts in ideas and behavior.

If Moscow wants to channel the energies of the members of these communities in a positive direction, Rashidov says, it must be sensitive to this problem, stop outmigration, create infrastructure to support identities, restore traditional control mechanisms, and create conditions to prevent the demise of non-Russian languages.

Unfortunately, “the national and demographic policy conducted by the Russian Federation regarding the indigenous peopes of the North Caucasus has led to catastrophic deformations of their ethnic values, involving a significant erosion of their ethnic norms, the degradation of the traditional system of values, and the reduction of their ability to revent conflict.”

            To avoid disaster, Russian policy must be radically changed, he concludes, because “inattention to the problems of the defense of the ethnic identities of the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus inevitably will lead to a greater humanitarian catastrophe in the Caucasus and destroy Russian statehood there.”

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