Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Three Demographic Bottlenecks for Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 2 – Population changes are usually discussed in global and often apocalyptic ways, but three demographic developments in the Russian Federation – one arising the draft in Daghestan, a second concerning the education of immigrants, and a third involving regional divide among that country’s Muslims – present immediate bottlenecks for Moscow.

            In Daghestan, the Russian armed forces may not draft anyone this year, Zulfiya Magomedova, the head of the Soldiers Mothers Committee there, said.  Given that its draft-age cohort is disproportionately large relative to other regions, this will have an impact far beyond that North Caucasus republic (www.regnum.ru/news/accidents/1576593.html).

            Until 2008, the Regnum.ru news agency says, the Russian military drafted between 15 and 20 thousand young Daghestanis every year. In 2009, that number fell to 2,000. More important, Moscow stopped taking Daghestanis into the border forces and air forces and stopped offering them contract positions, consigning almost all of them to MVD internal troops.

            Given high levels of unemployment in Daghestan, Magomedova adds, some young Daghestanis want into the military in order to get into law enforcement. But Russian commanders don’t:  In 2012, there have been more than 80 cases of what the news agency calls “mass sabotage when dozens of Daghestanis refused to follow orders.”

            If Moscow does end the draft of Daghestanis, other North Caucasian republics may seek a similar exemption. That will exacerbate unemployment in the region and quite possibly lead more unemployed young men to heed the calls of Islamist and nationalist groups to go into the forests and fight representatives of Russian power.

            But more seriously, many ethnic Russian parents are likely to be angry that their children must pay the tax of military service while people in the “restless” North Caucasus are allowed to avoid it. Such attitudes will only exacerbate tensions between ethnic Russians and North Caucasians not only in the region but in major Russian cities.

             Meanwhile, in those Russian cities, school administrators and the government behind them are facing the challenge of integrating ever more migrant children whose native language is not Russian. According to an article in “Russkaya gazeta” today, “soon 30 percent of pupils [in Russian cities] will be the children of gastarbeiters (www.rg.ru/2012/10/02/migranty.html).

            That will happen over the next eight to ten years, but already the percentage of immigrant children in some schools has passed 50 percent, forcing the school system to divert resources to provide Russian language instruction and presenting administrators will a serious challenge for which they have no good answer.

            The least expensive option is to create special magnet schools for these children, but if Moscow chooses that option, many parents will be upset that there children will no longer go to nearby schools, and both they and the pupils will feel them set apart, possibly viewing themselves and being viewed by others as burdens to the Russian tax payer.

            But the costs of intensive Russian-language training in neighborhood schools may be beyond Moscow’s ability to meet.  And that combination could mean that the magnet schools, if they are created, will intensify the formation of ethnic neighborhoods or ghettos, again setting in train social and political forces the regime will be hard-pressed to meet.

            The third challenge may seem less momentous, but it could spark protests in Moscow even sooner.  Since the end of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia has allocated 20,500 slots for the annual haj to the Russian Federation, and with Moscow’s blessing, North Caucasian Muslims have claimed almost all of these.

            This year, for example, the Russian haj committee has allocated 8,000 such slots to Daghestan, 4,000 to Chechnya, 1500 to Ingushetia, and 1200 to Kabardinia-Balkaria, Kraachayevo-Cherkessiya, Adygeya, and North Osetia. That means North Caucasians who form a minority of Russia’s Muslims nonetheless get more than 70 percent of the haj slots.

            That situation has continued “already for many years,” Khalida Khamidullina, a Tatar writer complains, adding that “each year the situation becomes more unfortunate because thousands of Tatars [and others from the Middle Volga and Siberia] cannot” take part (www.tatargazeta.ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=354:2012-09-26-11-24-06&catid=13:halida&Itemid=6).

            Last year, several hundred Muslims from the Middle Volga and Siberia staged a protest in Moscow. Now, Khamidullina says, some 500 to 600 Middle Volga Tatars are planning to stage another one, quite possibly this time around forcing Moscow to change the domestic haj quota or again go to the Saudis to ask for a larger country quota.

            Either step is fraught with dangers. If Moscow helps the Middle Volga Muslims to gain more slots, some in the North Caucasus will be infuriated and radicalized. If Moscow appeals to the Saudis, at least some Russian nationalists will be angry. But if it does neither, Moscow will face an increasingly angry Muslim community in Middle Volga,  something it can ill afford.

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