Thursday, March 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russians Must Become a Nation Before They Can Become a Democracy, Kazan Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 13 – Ethnic Russians must become a nation before they can become a democracy, and because that outcome would threaten the ruling oligarchy, the Kremlin is doing everything it can to prevent that,  including seeking to distract attention from the social problems of Russians by playing up inter-ethnic and inter-governmental conflicts as in Crimea.

            In an article in the current issue of Kazan’s independent weekly, “Zvezda Povolzhya,” Rafael Mukhametdinov, a Kazan Tatar historian, addresses two questions few are willing to pose so bluntly: Why is Russian society “unable to influence its rulers?” And is it possible that the Russian people “do not want to?” (March 13-19, 2014, pp. 1-2).

            Mukhametdinov suggests there are “a multitude” of historical, climatic, social, cultural, and “even geographic” which provide the answers.  Russia’s enormous size and natural wealth have convinced many Russians that it is better that the rulers rule and that they live with that situation.

            As a result, he continues, despite changes in names and titles, “the majority of the peoples [in what is now the Russian Federation] still lives in feudalism,” with princes above and slaves below,”  a situation that can change only when self-conscious nations emerge, something that the rulers see as a threat to their power and wealth.

            Helping the elites in this regard, Mukhametdinov continues, is their ability to tell one group of slaves that they are superior to another group of slaves and thus should be grateful for their privileged position or their efforts to promote chimerical super-ethnic groups like “the Soviet people” or “[non-ethnic] Russian nation.”

            Indeed, the Kazan historian says, the latter is just as much “a utopia” as the former because “nations are not created by the handing out of passports.”

            The only way forward is to recognize that nations exist or should exist and that they should be governed by democratic arrangements.  And that presupposes the creation of a genuine rather than simply declarative “free Federation of peoples of the Russian Federation (with the right to free entrance and exit for each people)” and with the Russians becoming a nation as well.

            If democratic arrangements were set up and respected, amorphous peoples would more or less quickly become nations, he argues, pointing out that “without the passing through of this historical stage [of ethno-national development], democracy [as a genuine and functioning system] is impossible.”

            Understanding that reality and the threat that it poses for the elites provides a clue to understanding what has occurred in Ukraine.  The revolution there “was not so much a national as a social” one. What was overthrown was a pro-Moscow oligarchy and its corrupt supporters and hangers on.

            Fearful that something similar could happen in Russia, Moscow has done everything it can to portray the Ukrainian events as something else, as extremist nationalist rather than genuinely popular.   That way it can continue to distract attention from social problems at home by playing up or even creating inter-ethnic or inter-state conflicts.

            Such an understanding, the Kazan historian suggests, should become the basis for an alliance of peoples from below, each of which has an interest in overthrowing the elites currently repressing them. There is some evidence of this fraternization in Crimea between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and there will likely be more.

            But both participants and observers need to remember the most important thing: “A people is an amorphous mass” which can be manipulated and oppressed.” But when it becomes a nation, everything changes, and those who have ruled “peoples” find that they cannot continue as they have.

            Consequently, the emergence of a genuinely Russian nation rather than the various surrogates for that Moscow has offered will help not only the Russian people but also the other nations of Eurasia become democratic and yield the benefits that only popular rule can offer over the longer term. 

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