Staunton, August 26 – The shares of Russians who say that ethnic conflicts in their country are “likely” or “more likely than not” have declined from 17 and 45 percent respectively in October 2013 to five and 20 percent now, according to the findings of a new Levada Center poll.
But Mikhail Remizov of the Moscow Institute of National Strategy says they lack an objective basis for this new optimism because nothing has changed in Russian society over this period to reduce the probability of the appearance and escalation of ethnic conflicts in the country (vestikavkaza.ru/news/Rossiyane-ne-zhdut-natsionalnykh-konfliktov-opros.html).
And both he and journalist Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations, agree that the change in popular attitudes reflects what is being reported in the media with fewer stories about domestic problems even though they continue to exist and overwhelming coverage of the war in Ukraine which produces “patriotic” attitudes.
The Levada Center poll also found that Russians were more optimistic now than two years ago about the possibility of conflicts in their own hometowns, less hostile to non-Russians than they had been, and more ready to legalize illegal workers rather than expel them from the country compared to their views in 2013.
In commenting on these findings, Remizov said they reflected the decline in media coverage of ethnic problems within Russia and the refocusing of the media on Ukraine. Thus, he argues, the findings “do not testify to qualitative changes in the situation” but rather to the impact of media coverage on what Russians will tell pollsters.
At the same time, he acknowledges that “events in the Donbas and in Crimea have somewhat united society and, if one speaks about Crimea, raised the authority of Russians in the eyes of the Caucasian peoples.” At the same time, “the participation for example of Osetians and Chechens in the volunteer movement in the Donbas, which has been treated in the mass media has improved the attitude of Russians to representatives of the Caucasus peoples.”
What will happen in the future depends, Remizov concludes, will depend on how the domestic and foreign policy situations develop. “If confrontation with the West grows, then inter-ethnic relations inside the country will improve because this will promote the rallying of various communities.”
At the same time, he implies but doesn’t say, if the economic conditions inside the country get worse, that could have exactly the opposite effect.
Shevchenko agrees with this, but he adds that Moscow has taken some steps that may have led Russians to conclude that the situation at home with regard to ethnic relations has in fact improved or at least is now under the control of the authorities.
Among these are efforts to control immigration, expanded work with diasporas, tighter control over Internet communities, and the formation of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, as well as a general tightening of government control over society and the economy.
That last, he suggests, is especially important because in his view many inter-ethnic conflicts in Russia “are the result of a struggle for local, regional or federal markets.” Consequently, to the extent Moscow cracks down on oligarchs or businesses in general, such struggles may become less significant.