Monday, January 23, 2012

Window on Eurasia: To Win Votes, Putin Plays the Always Risky Nationality Card

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – In a transparent attempt to win votes but one that may backfire not only among non-Russians but also among many Russians opposed to his authoritarian approach, Vladimir Putin has published the nationality plank of his presidential campaign, one that restates and extends ideas he has presented in the past.

            Putin’s 3700-word essay, which appears today both on his presidential campaign website ( and as a major article in Moscow’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” (, adopts a stateman-like pose, saying how dangerous it is for politicians to play the ethnic card and then proceeding to do just htat.   

            As he has often done, the Russian prime minister stresses that the ethnic situation in his country is “in principle different” than it is in other countries, with its “nationality and migration problems “directly connected with the destruction of the USSR and in esstence historically greater Russia which was established in its essentials already in the 18th century.”

            “Having declared sovereignty 20 years ago,” Putin continues, “the then-deputies of the RSFSR” in their struggle with “the ‘union center’” put in motion “the process of the construction of ‘national states,’ including even within the Russian Federation itself,” a process that could lead to “collapse and separatism.”

            “With the disintegration of the country,” he says, “we turned out to be at the edge and in certain well-know regions even beyond the edge of civil war.” But fortunately, just as in the case of “the first Russian time of troubles” in the seventeenth century, while the state was “critically weakened, Russia did not disappear.”

            The ethnic Russian people and ethnic Russian culture which defines and maintains “the fabric of this unique civilization,” Putin argues, held things together and even now are preventing those who would “with their own hands destroy their own motherland” by calling for “a mono-ethnic state,” “the shortest path … the destruction of the Russian people and Russian statehood.”

            Moreover, those who today say that it is time to “stop feeding the Caucasus” will eventually say that it is time to “stop feeding Siberia, the Far East, the Urals, and the Moscow region,” Putin adds, repeating the kind of domino effect that led to the destruction of the Soviet Union.

            The [ethnic] Russian people, Putin continues, “is a polyethnic civilization held together by a Russian cultural nucleus.” As such, “the [non-ethnic] Russian experience of state development is unique.  We are a multi-national society,” he says, “but we are a single people,” something that must oppose any “germ” of narrow nationalism.

            Again as he has done in the past, Putin notes that “many citizens of the USSR when they were abroad called themselves [ethnic] Russians” because “in our identity is a different cultural code” than others have. “the [ethnic] Russian people is the state-forming people as is shown by the fact of the existence of Russia. The great mission of the [ethnic] Russians is to unify and support [this] civilization.”

            “Such a civilizaitonal identity is based on the preservation of [ethnic] Russian cultural dominants, the bears of which are not only ethnic Russians but all the bears of this identity independently of nationality.  This cultural code which ahs been subjected in recent times to serious tests” has been preserved.

            From this perspective, Putin argues that the Russian Federation needs “a strategy of nationality policy based on civic patriotism,” one in which “every individual living in our country must not forget about his faith and ethnicity. But he must above all be a citizen of Russia and proud of that.”

            “No one has the right to put national and religious differences higher than the laws of the state,” Putin says, although he does allow that “the laws of the state must consider national and religious differences.” To that end, he calls for a new nationalities agency, even though he was the one who disbanded as unnecessary the Russian ministry for nationality affairs.

          The presidential candidate adds that the rights of ethnic Russians must be constantly protected from abuse lest some begin to talk about “the national oppression of [ethnic]s Russian” and use that to promote disorder or even to allow some to talk about the rise of “’[ethnic] Russian fascism.’”

            Force must be used to suppress violence but otherwise dialogue should be maintained, Putin suggests. Only “one thing” is not permissible: There must be no chance “for the creation of regional parties, including in the national republics” because that step “is a direct path to separatism.”

            In some detail, he calls for a toughening of immigration policy and expanded efforts to ensure that legal migrants “adapt” to the Russian cultural code, all popular positions given the number of gastarbeiters in Russian cities.  But he uses this proposal to talk about something else, which potentially has far reaching consequences.

            Putin suggests that to address the migration issue there needs to be “Eurasian integration” across the former Soviet space, a process that will “strengthen our ‘historic state,’ left to us from our ancestors. A state-civilization which is capable of organically resolving the task of the integration of various ethnoses and confessions.”

            “For centuries,” Putin concludes, “we have lived together. Together we won in the most terrible war. And we will lvie together in the future.  To those wo want or try to divide us, I will say only one thing – don’t expect to succeed,” language that probably will generate a different reaction in the other post-Soviet states than among his supporters.

            Given his place in the Russian political system, Putin’s essay even today has attracted enormous comment, generally positive but not universally so even among ethnic Russians and those who describe themselves as Russian nationalists. Among the most interesting of these comments are,,,

            But one comment today from a Kazan Tatar suggests how many of the Russian Federation’s increasingly numerous non-ethnic Russians are likely to react to Putin’s approach.  In a commentary on ETatar, Robert Bolgarsky politely but firmly disagrees with the Russian politician’s approach (

            Bolgarsky begins by observing that Putin’s “long-awaited article” failed to provide answers which “it would have been interesting” to find the answers to, among which are Putin’s attitudes toward instruction in non-Russian languages in the republics of the Russian Federation and to the state of native languages in general.

            Instead, the Tatar commentator said, Putin used terms that raise more questions and will lead almost any non-Russian to draw some very negative conclusions about what the Russian prime minister and president presumptive believes and where he wants to take the country in the future.

            As Bolgarsky notes, Putin talks about “[ethnic] Russian Armenians, [ethnic] Russian Azerbaijanis, [ethnic] Russian Germans, [and ethnic] Russian Tatars.”  Just who are “[ethnic] Russian] Tatars,” the commentator asks, suggesting that Putin for some reason or other has confused the terms “Rossiyanin” or non-ethnic Russian with “Russkiye” or ethnic Russian.

            “Ask any Tatar who speaks even the slightest amoung of his native language,” Bolgarsky continues,  Having heard the term ‘[ethnic] Russian Tatar,’ he as a minimum will begin to think about what that means because from birth he has not heard such a definition of his nationality.”

            “Is this a Tatar who has converted to Orthodoxy? Or is it a Tatar who has forgotten his native language? Or is it a Russified Tatar? There are perhaps a great many possibilities, but they all mean the loss of national identity, of the Tatar cultural code, if you like, and thus the term ‘[ethnic] Russian Tatar’ is viewed by Tatars themselves in an extremely negative way.”

            Putin should know, the Tatar commentator says, that there are more than 100 language and ethnic groups who are “indigenous peoples of the federation. These are not just Russian lands, they are Tatar, Bashkir, Koryak, Yakut and other lands. But for some reason, Putin gives to the Russians ‘the great mission to unite.’”

            Bolgarsky then says “Permit me not to agree with you, Vladimir Vladimirovich! I am first of all a Tatar and Muslim who considers Russia as his motherland. I am in no way an ‘[ethnic] Russian Tatar’! I am a [non-ethnic] Russian Tatar,” despite the fact that the laws of the Russian state don’t allow him or others to learn their native languages to perfection.

            But Bolgarsky concludes that there is one point with which he has to agree with Putin and that is when the prime minister says that anyone “who comes into regions with other cultures and historical traditions must relate to local customs with respect. To the customs of [ethnic] Russians and all other peoples of Russia.”

            So anyone, including Russian presidential candidates who come to Tatarstan and the Middle Volga should be good enough to “learn at least 100 words of Tatar” in order to behave respectfully to the Tatar population.  Vladimir Putin, Bolgarsky concludes, has been good enough to do at least that.

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