Staunton, December 31 – “National Accent,” a media project of the Russian Federation’s Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism, on the last day of 2020 has listed what it says were the five most important ethnic events in Russia during the last 12 months. In each case, it explains why the particular case was on the list.
First, of course, was the pandemic and the restrictions it imposed. Not only did these force the cancellation or shift to an online format of many ethnic activities, but they transformed the life of ethnic groups by forcing them to shift away from face-to-face encounters (nazaccent.ru/content/34825-samye-vazhnye-sobytiya-etnicheskogo-2020-goda.html).
Second on the list were the Bashkir protests at Kushtau, a place many in that republic consider holy but that could provide significant economic growth. After tilting toward development, the republic authorities backed down and supported the population, insisting that any exploitation of the mountain must be strictly limited.
The Moscow media treated this primarily as an environmental issue, NazAccent says; but in fact it was profoundly ethnic because of the importance of Kustau to the Bashkirs and if anything its resolution became even more so because the authorities backed down when confronted by a united nation.
Third on NazAccent’s list was the Qarabagh conflict and the clashes it led to between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Russia. Dozens of each nation were detained amidst rumors that many on both sides were prepared to go to the Caucasus to fight as volunteers. Few did so, but they collected money and other forms of help for their nations.
Russia’s neutrality in the conflict in the South Caucasus allowed officials to get between the two sides rather than risking being blamed by one or the other and that limited the size and length of the protests.
The fourth event on the list was the creation of the Assembly of Peoples of Russia by a decree of Vladimir Putin and within the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs. The new assembly will serve as a space for dialogue among NGOs from the various nationalities of the Russian Federation.
What matters in this case is that debates about whether such a body should or could be formed are now at an end. The future will show how effective such an Assembly can be in sharing opinions not only among the non-Russian nations of the country but also between them and the Russian government.
And the fifth event of the year was the successful protest of the residents of the Nenets Autonomous District against being amalgamated by the larger and predominantly ethnic Russian Arkhangelsk Oblast. Putin has long promoted such unions, and the leaders of the two federal subjects decided to go forward.
But popular opposition was sufficient to put off the referendum they wanted and likely has killed not only this project but most other amalgamation plans at least in the short term.
Of course, there are other events and developments including resistance to Moscow’s language policies, Tatarstan’s moves to defend its own constitution against change, the going home of migrants, the continuing repression of Ingush opposition leaders, and increasing assertiveness by many ethnic communities.
But four of the five events on this list highlight something very important: When faced with the opposition of non-Russians, the central government and its regional representatives are increasingly likely to back down rather than to ride roughshod over the population. That may send a message to other non-Russians and profoundly affect politics there in 2021.