Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Navalny’s Nationality ‘Policy’ Potentially Dangerous, Gontmakher Says

Window on Eurasia: Navalny’s Nationality ‘Policy’ Potentially Dangerous, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 4 – Aleksey Navalny, who has emerged as a leading opposition figure and possible future candidate, has voiced his support for views on the relations between ethnic Russians and the increasing fraction of non-Russians that could put Russia’s progress toward democracy and the rule of law at risk, according to a leading Moscow writer.

            Writing in his blog today, Yevgeny Gontmakher, a leader of the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Development and a frequent commentator on Russia’s domestic affairs, notes that on many issues Navalny remains “a mystery” not so much in terms of biography but rather with regard to his political ideas (

            Nowhere is that more the case than Navalny’s position on ethnic relations, Gontmakher says, but the prominent lawyer and anti-corruption fighter has said some things and indicated that he subscribes to the ideas of others that should give pause not only his supporters but even Navalny himself.

            In recent remarks, Navalny indicated that he “supports the idea of the formation [in Russia] of ‘a national state’ as an alternative to ‘constructing out of Russia a 19th century-style empire.” Given Russia’s formation through conquest and its formal commitment to federalism, it is worth asking, Gontmakher suggests, “what concretely he has in mind?”

            Is he condemning “attempts at restoring an empire? “Attempts at restoring (in one form or another) of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union?” Is he showing “nostalgia for imperial times which is still characteristic for a significant part of [Russians]? Or does something imperial threaten us in the arrangements of contemporary Russia?”

            “Precise answers to such questions,” Gontmakher insists, “are extremely important,” but what Navalny has said so far provides few of them.

            Gontamkher notes that Wikipedia defines a nation state as “a constitutional-legal type of state, which means that the latter is a form of the self-determination and organization of this or that nation on a defined sovereign territory and expresses the will of this nation.” In its ideal form, “all the citizens of this state have a common language, culture and values.”

In Europe today, “there are a large number of typical national states” which fall within this definition. That is because, the Moscow commentator says, “there is an ethnos which first of all forms the overwhelming majority of the population and second lives on its own territory from time immemorial,” even if there are some national minorities.

Russia, however, does not correspond to these “two criteria” primarily “because of the second point.  “Tatars and Bashkirs, Chuvash and Mordvins, Chechens and Ingushes, Yakuts and Chukchis live on territories in which not so long ago there were no ethnic Russians at all.” Consequently, the 1993 Constitution defined the country as a federation.

“It is possible,” Gontmakher says, “that it was a mistake to split the truly ethnic Russian (Slavic) lands into numerous oblasts and krays, and this is a subject for discussion about the future arrangement” of the country. “But the presence of national republics and districts is the only chance to escape from the imperial arrangement of Russia.”

In this regard, the Moscow social scientist continues, the experience of Great Britain is instructive. That country “freed itself from the imperial path not only by withdrawing from colonies but also by the formation on the islands which remained to it of a real federation based on ethnicity (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).”

Gontmakher says that recently a senior  British foreign ministry official corrected him when he spoke of the people of the United Kingdom as “Englishmen.” The diplomat said that he should call them “Britons” instead.

For Russia, other parts of the definition of a nation state are relevant. As far as a common language, “there is no problem,” Gontmakher suggests, because “the Russian language is justly the only state language throughout its territory.” But with regard to culture and values, the situation is different, with many groups having their own unique positions.

According to Navalny, “the source of power” in Russia and other countries “must be ‘the nation, the citizens of the country and not an elite stratum” seeking global domination. “But about what nation should we be speaking” in the case of the Russian Federation? Clearly even those members of ethnic minorities are not going to define themselves as ethnic Russians.

They may be willing to define themselves as “Rossiyane,” a non-ethnic term, Gontmakher says, but Navalny has said he supports the NAROD group’s opposition to that term as a slight on ethnic Russians. But such an attitude, Gontmakher says, “is thedirect path to the splitting up of Russia into ethnic units,” to “a tragedy” like that of Yugoslavia in which “the ethnic Russians would play the role of Serbs.”

By supporting NAROD’s views, Navalny appears to place his faith in the exceptionalism of the ethnic Russians, especially when he specifies that “the Russian people deserves the right to live under democracy.”  That is beyond doubt, but why doesn’t he say anyting about “the remaining 20 percent of the population of Russia which belongs to the non-Russians?”

Such silence by Navalny or anyone else, Gontmakher concludes, suggests that “either the others do not deserve this (and how then could there be a democracy of the European type?) or that Russians deserve this as ‘a special case,’ something that is a very dangerous idea in a multi-national country.”

The Moscow commentator continues by saying that he agrees with Navalny that “there are problems and not small ones in interethnic relations in Russia” and that this “concerns of course the ethnic Russians as well.” That needs to be said, but if Navalny and others want a European style democracy in Russia, they need to be inclusive not exclusive.

Failure to do so, especially by those who hope to be leaders of the Russian Federation, can only point to disasters in the future.

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