Thursday, February 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: From ‘Upper Volta with Missiles’ to ‘Nigeria with Snow’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 28 – Twenty-five years ago, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt characterized the Soviet Union as being an “Upper Volta with missiles.” Now, Russian analysts, in response to findings of a Swiss firm, have suggested that a better analogy might be between the Russian Federation and a “Nigeria with snow.”

            The three differences between these declarations tell a great deal about the path that Russia has followed over the last generation. In the earlier time, the analogy was made by a Western political leader, horrified Soviet citizens, and suggested that Russia’s military strength was the thing that set it apart from a much weaker country.

            Now, the analogy is being made by Russian analysts, horrifies Western business interests, and suggests that it is precisely Russia’s similarity with Nigeria on a wide range of economic and political measures including corruption and government inefficiency that is the heart of the matter and cannot be obscured by snow.

            In an article posted yesterday on the “Svobodnaya pressa” site and entitled “Nigeria in the Snow,” commentator Andrey Polunin said that in the view of foreign investors as expressed in a report by the Swiss Coca-Cola HBC, “Russia stands closest of all to … Nigeria” becaue of the nature of its political and economic system (

            (That this analogy is now widespread in Moscow is suggested by the simultaneous appearance of another article, this one by Petr Svoekoshtny on the portal entitled “Northern Nigeria” (

            According to Polunin, the Coca-Cola HBC report makes five basic points.  First, for Russia as for Nigeria, state policy is inconsistent and thus makes investing more risky. Second, the legal systems of the two countries are poorly articulated.  Third, like Nigeria,Russia has too many different government players for any company to know whose decision will stick.

            Fourth, both countries “historically have very high levels of corruption,” something that makes it difficult for US firms, restrained as they are by anti-corruption laws, to operate.  And fifth, the lack of clarity in the legal systems of the two countries makes it difficult to calculate profitability and thus determine whether an investment is wise or not

            These conclusions are hardly original, Polunin points out. But they underscore the reality that “the third presidential term of Vladimir Putin – more precisely, the political protests and growth of tensions connected with it – have made Russia ever more like Nigeria in the eyes of foreigners.”

            “Svobodnaya pressa” appends a table comparing Russia and Nigeria in 2007 across a large number of indicators to underscore that even then “the basic social-economic indicators of Russia and Nigeria were very close.”  Apparently, the article implies and the Western analysts suggest, they have become still closer in the intervening years.

             Polunin asked two Russian commentators for their reactions, Valery Solovey, an MGIMO professor who heads the New Force Party, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, a professor at the Russian Economic University and the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation.

            Solovey said that the Coca-Cola HBC assessment “corresponds to the general assessment of the overwhelming share of Russian economists” The situation is “not simply bad;  it is getting worse” because of the Russian government’s policies. “Unfortunately,” he said, “everything” that the Western risk assessment report found “is pure truth.”

            The factors it identifies make it extremely likely that Russia “is now at the first stage” of serious political unrest, with a new round of protests likely to emerge and on “a new basis,  not political protest against dishonest elections but of social-economic dissatisfaction.”  That will make the protests broader and larger.

            In addition, increasing immigration “pressure” is viewed by many Russians as the reason their lives are not getting better, and the influx of North Caucasians into the southern part of Russia is affecting social and political attitudes there.  Over the next year, Solovey suggested, these various factors are likely to come together.

            The outflow of Russian capital is also likely to continue “and even increase” for the reasons the report listed.  And that will only make the situation worse for ordinary Russians, the New Force Party leader said.

            Khasbulatov, in contrast, said it was “madness” to compare Nigeria with Russia. Instead, he suggested, one should see this report and this comparison as part of a general pattern of Western opposition to continued investment in the Russian Federation, opposition that was reflected most recently in statements by George Soros at Davos in January.

            Nonetheless, he conceded that there are “enormous” problems with the Russian economy, and he argued that they were largely of Moscow’s own making.  Relying on gas and oil exports alone, as the Putin regime has done, “is a sign of a colonial economy,” and it puts Russia at serious risk when prices fall. “The faith of the Kremlin that prices for oil will be high eternally stupefies me,” Khasbulatov continued. 

            If the influx of petro-dollars falls, he argued, this will force the government and business to cut pay, social programs and pensions. And when that happens, people will go out in the streets not just in Moscow but throughout the country.  Clearly, the Kremlin does not understand this or how to avoid it.

            The majority of Russians are disappointed and distrustful of those in power.  “Russian society does not trust anyone, not Putin or the government.” Indeed, Khasbulatov suggested, “today the real level of trust in political leaders is comparable to the level of trust in [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin in 1996.”

            “In other words, it is catastrophically low.”  That is “pushing Russia to instability,” something foreign analysts fear and is driving them to suggest, as Coca-Cola HBS has, that Russia today has become “a Nigeria with snow.”

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Russians Incapable of Organizing Themselves to Defend Their Interests, Moscow Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 28 – Unlike ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation, ethnic Russians are currently incapable of organizing themselves into a unified force to defend their interests, the result less of the current policies of the Russian state than of social and economic change over the past century, according to a leading Academy of Sciences sociologist.

            This weakness is reflected in their inability to form their own political party, Leonty Byzov of the Moscow Institute of Sociology says, as well as in the rise of regional identities within the Russian ethnos and the failure of Russians to organize collectively even in non-Russian areas where they might be expected to behave as other minorities do.

            In an interview with Aleksey Polubota of “Svobodnaya pressa,” Byzov argues that the Russian government is the only factor responsible for this situation. Instead, he says, “the process of the degradation of [ethnic] Russians has been taking place over decades and its roots are to be found in Soviet times” (

            But he suggests that this process is currently accelerating and that the authorities “really do not understand how to solve this problem” and may “no even sense it.”  That is because “they think only about the present day or in the best sense about tomorrow.” But they “do not think about what will be the case after a decade or two.”

            This shortsightedness is not limited to the Russian government, Byzov continues. It is also a feature of the Russian people. And that means that “it is difficult to say to what extent the process of the degradation of the Russian ethnos is reversible” or whether it has gone too far for the Russian nation to recover as a nation.

            Besides the numerical decline in the number of ethnic Russians and the depopulation of historically Russian regions, Byzov says, there has been “a general loss of passion, an atomization of society, and the loss of a creative basis which were characteristic of the Russians over the course of many centuries.”

            The reasons for this disturbing trend are to be sought in the consequences of forced collectivization and rapid urbanization, in which the traditional Russian way of life was destroyed and nothing collective was put in its place. Indeed, Byzov argues, “it is possible to say that [ethnic] Russians as a nation do not currently exist.”

            There is little or no chance to reverse this, he says. On the one hand, “the return to the Russian tradition is hardly possible. And on the other, “life in the conditions of a contemporary city, the impact of mass culture, and the deepening psychology of a consumer society all are leading to an intensification of the processes put in play in the 20th century.”

            Byzov says that the argument that the failure of the Russians to organize reflects their majority status, but he says that argument falls apart if one considers the fact than even when ethnic Russians find themselves in the status of minorities in some non-Russian republics in the Russian Federation, “they do not overcome their divisions” and unite for their interests.

            Instead, even where social science suggests they should organize, they remain “quite passive.”  That is not the result of state policy but rather “the extremely low capacity of contemporary Russians for self-organization.” Clearly, “if there is no sense of commonality, then no national cultural autonomy will help.”

            None of the various proposals for a definition of Russian ethnic identity has found wide acceptance, Byzov continues. There is no possibility of returning to traditional culture, and Russian Orthodoxy is seen by “the majority of Russians” as “a formal identity: when they call themselves Orthodox, people in part do not know what this means.”

            Today, there is no “clear definition of who is a Russian” either among specialists or among ethnic Russians themselves. Instead, “identity among Russians to an ever greater extent is connected with regions or place of residence.” Siberians, for example, are “more inclined to identify themselves regionally than nationally.”

            Many believe that ethnic Russians will unite because of the increasing number of immigrants, but this appears unlikely, Byzov says.  Rather, he suggests, “[ethnic] Russians are beginning to retreat and representatives of diasporas and ethnic communities advance even when they are given formally equal opportunities.”

            That process, which is most in evidence in major cities in central Russia, bothers Russians, but “no one knows” how to reverse it. One reason it has gone so far is that in the 1990s, “spheres in which Russians were traditionally stronger – science, education, and defense – degraded,” and ever more Russians found themselves competing with non-Russians in small business where “Russians do not have special abilities and traditionally lose” to other groups.

            Another reason for the degradation of Russians lies in the corruption of the state and society in Russia, but here too, Russians do not appear to understand how it affects them.  “Systemic corruption is now a form of existence for society,” reflecting the rise of “informal ties and agreements.” Non-Russians find it easier to navigate that than do ethnic Russians.

            Indeed, Byzov  says, “it is perfectly obvious that a situation of total corruption is more profitable to them than to the [ethnic] Russian indigenous majority.” But changing that situation will require more than a crackdown on corruption; it will require both a change in the norms of society and the values in the Russian community.

            Unfortunately, Byzov says, the possibilities for that are currently limited. Under Putin, he suggests, “a bureaucracy has arisen which today in essence has privatized the state,” works for its interests rather than those of the society.  But the only way to change that is to increase political action by the population, something that has not happened.

            Russians remain divided even ideologically. On the one hand, there is “the traditional form of Russian nationalism, national-patriotism.”  But it is confined largely to representatives of the older generation and “today it has lost its monopoly.”  On the other, there are now some national democrats who want to carve out of the empire a distinctly ethnic Russian state, a trend that “is still not very popular.”

            Obviously, “nationalist attitudes” are increasing in the Russian Federation and even among ethnic Russians, Byzov acknowledges. But he points out the gap between the 50 or 60 percent of ethnic Russians who have nationalist attitudes and the four to five percent who are prepared to vote for groups that articulate them.

            Until that changes – and until ethnic Russians find a new basis for unity among themselves – no strong nationalist political party is likely to form, Byzov concludes, the current situation of ethnic degradation of the Russian nation is likely to continue and, the sociologist implies, may even get worse.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims, Diverse in Soviet Times, are Even More Varied Now, Moscow Ethnographer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 27 – Russia’s Islamic community, extraordinarily diverse in tsarist and Soviet times, has become even more varied since 1991, a situation that makes nonsense of the widespread view that there is some “statistically average Muslim” and means that one-size-fits-all policies are doomed to failure, according to a Moscow ethnographer.

            In an interview on the portal yesterday, Akhmet Yarlykapov, a senior scholar at the Center for Ethno-Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, describes the nature and sources of this growing diversity and warns of the dangers of ignoring it (

            “The uniqueness of Russia consists that the Islamic regions [of the country] are so very different one from other, Yarlykanov says. And that variety means that it is almost always a mistake to assume that any one characteristic or even any trend is true of all its various components.

            Thus, for example, “if we take Daghestan and to a lesser extent Chechnya and Ingushetia, then in these places there has not been a rebirth of Islam but rather the coming out of Islam from the underground.”  But if we consider such regions as Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkesia, then it would be correct to use the term ‘re-Islamization.’”

            The same problem exists regarding the use of terms like “traditional” and “non-traditional” Islam, the Moscow scholar says.  In Daghestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, Sufism is the traditional form, but in other North Caucasus republics, there was no Sufism. And that in turn means that re-Islamization is different in different places a well.

            Because all these different things are going on all at once and because they have created “a mosaic of Islamic opinion,” Yarlykapov argues, it is extremely difficult and counterproductive to “single out something as ‘tradition’” and something else as non-traditional and assume that one can support the one or the other in every case.

            “Soviet Muslims also were extremely diverse,” he continues. There were those that many in the West call part of “official Islam,” which included the Muslim Spiritual Directorates who were almost “government employees” and their followers.  There were numerous trends of independent “unofficial” Muslim groups who had “complicated” relations with the official brand.

            And there were what many call “ethnic Muslims,” people who “considered themselves Muslims but new little or nothing about the faith. Taken together, these constituted what became in the 1980s, “Soviet Islam,” which had little to do with theology but rather with the flowering of “pre-monotheistic” practices such as visits to holy places.

            All of these trends represented efforts to survive under duress rather than a search for the faith, Yarlykapov suggests, and he calls attention to one curious reality: The MSDs then, just as the Wahhabis do today, condemned those who were shifting from attention to theological truths to pre-monotheistic practices.

            The relationship between Islamic identity and political identity has also changed. In tsarist times, the religious identity was predominant; in Soviet times, the political one became more important; but now there is a struggle between them, with some Muslims viewing Islamic identity as more important but others just the reverse.

             Today, the Moscow ethnographer says, “the overwhelming majority of Muslims consider themselves Rossiyane [that is, non-ethnic Russians] and is politically loyal to the Russian state. In a political sense, then, they conceive themselves as part of the [non-ethnic] Russian nation [natisya].”

            But in addition, there are others who believe “that is it necessary to establish their own state” and are willing to go into the forests to fight. There are those who believe that “a compromise is possible.” And there are those who believe that they must have their own state but that now is not the time to fight for it.

            This last group, Yarlykapov suggests, resemble “the situation of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel who do not recognize the state of Israel but nevertheless, live on its territory.  There are such Sufi groups in Daghestan. They are not large, but one must not forget about them” in any assessment of the umma in the Russian Federation.

            The MSD system, created by the tsarist regime in the 18th century and revived by the Soviet leadership in the 1940s today has collapsed, the ethnographer says.  These institutions “are not part of the state system; in legal terms, these are simply social organizations without a strict hierarchy.” Muslim communities form around imams not around them.

            The Russian government does not comprehend this complexity, the scholar continues. And it has not figured out what to do.  “The sad thing is not that the policy of the state is anti-Islamic; the sad thing is that the state does not have a clear policy regarding Islam,” and as a result, “each state organ acts” on its own and as it thinks best.

            The relationship between the various groups within Russian Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are equally complicated, Yarlykapov argues. These involve in the first instance concerns about missionary work by one side among the followers of the other and in the second differences in the relationship of the faith to those in power.

            In some places, this relationship is relatively good but in others openly hostile. But what is surprising is this: “On the whole, Orthodoxy and not only its Russian variant to a surprising degree remains the one Christian confession which on the one hand has a very serious and lengthy experience of interacting with Islam but on the other hand has done nothing for developing inter-confessional dialogue.”

            Yarlykapov said that he personally does not see any clear policy about Islam existing in the Russian Orthodox Church. That Church is angry that “in the North Caucasus, there are many cases” when Russians have become Muslims, “especially in Daghestan, where quite a high percent of ethnic Russians have accepted Islam.”

            Thus, neither the state nor the Church has done much to move beyond “stereotypes rooted in a lack of knowledge about Islam” and neither has helped Russian society to move beyond Islamophobic attitudes, which are growing because of the influx of Muslim gastarbeiters from Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

            Islamophobia is on the rise throughout the world, the scholar says, “but for Russia this is a particularly serious problem,” because a large share of all Muslims there are citizens of the country and because they form a large share of the population as a whole.  Inter-religious conflicts in Russia are thus “especially dangerous.”

            If Russians can get beyond Islamophobia, Yarlyapov suggests, they will see some amazing things going on among the Muslims living among them. A large number of Russia’s Muslims “read Arabic or at least English and have the chance to become familiar with the fetwas of sheiks living many thousands of kilometers away.”

            These Muslims are part of the larger problem of “’electronic muftis,’” who are playing an increasing role in the lives of the faithful and often have far more influence in the lives of believers than the mullah or imam at the local mosque. “Today it is possible to go to one mosque but to be a follower of another imam who lives thousands of kilometers away.”

            The Russian academic community unfortunately has not helped as much as it might, the Moscow investigator says. While there is no shortage of research on Russia’s Muslims, there is a severe shortage of high quality sociological work. Indeed, there is less of that now than there was at the end of the Soviet period.

            If one looks to the future, Yarlykapov says, it is clear that the Muslims are not going to become a majority of the population by 2050.  They form at most 20 percent now, many Muslim nationalities are not growing fast, and a large share of the Muslims inside Russia consists of migrants who at some point will go home.

            But if one focuses on culture, Muslims will be playing an expanded role. “Russia will continue to remain a country where the most varied cultures exist, including within Islam itself.”  That means whatever some may think or want that “Russia in the future will preserve all its cultural multiplicity.”

Window on Eurasia: Liquidating Non-Russian Republics Would Threaten Russia’s National Interests, Moscow Roundtable Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 27 – Liquidating the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation as some have proposed would threaten the survival of the country’s non-Russian nations as well as the national traditions and interests of the Russian people and the Russian Federation, according to participants in a Moscow roundtable.

            And those experts add that those who understand this situation should speak out because so far the idea has been pushed only by second-level figures, an apparent testing of the waters by more senior ones, and thus can be stopped before actions are taken that could ignite serious inter-ethnic conflicts in the country and undercut Russia’s position in the world.

            Last week, in the Moscow House of Nationalities, the Gumilyev Center and the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus held a roundtable to express the reasoning behind their opposition to the elimination of the non-Russian republics ( and

            If Moscow resumes its program of folding in non-Russian republics into predominantly Russian regions that between 2005 and 2008 eliminated six autonomous districts, the participants said, that would be “an extraordinarily serious step” that would require changing the Russian Constitution, something most Russian politicians have been unwilling to do.

            And it would trigger opposition among the non-Russian nationalities especially those who would be likely to conclude that the only way to prevent this change would be public protest and in international organizations because Moscow is a signatory to many accords committing it to protect the rights of minorities.

            Pavel Zarifullin, the head of the Moscow Gumilyev Center, said that Moscow needs to recognize that “the strength of the state consists in its asymmetrical nature, its complexity, and the multiplicity of the systems which make it up” and that efforts to impose a spurious homogeneity would only undermine its power.

            Unfortunately, he continued, at present, anyone, regardless of how little he understands about the nationality question, is free to make proposals that may be dangerous to the country. And the Gumilyev Center head said that is exactly what Mikhail Prokhorov and others who have called for doing away with the non-Russian republics have done.
            And unfortunately too, Zarifullin continued, these proposals are not given the assessments they deserve.  “No one,” he said, had yet done so in the case of Prokhorov, and he suggested that the current roundtable was thus a necessary corrective because “it is time for society to give its assessment” of such dangerous ideas.

            Rustem Vahitov, a Moscow commentator who writes frequently on nationality issues, suggested in his remarks that “if a decision will be taken to do away with the national autonomies,” that will intensify nationalisms of all kinds, leave to national conflicts, and threaten smaller peoples with assimilation and the loss of their culture and language.

            Ramazan Alpaut, deputy chairman of the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus, said that there was a worldwide trend toward greater not lesser autonomy for ethnic minorities. He also noted that most of the republics of the Russian Federation “which are considered mono-ethnic” in Russia are not so “according to European standards.”   For example, Chechnya is not completely Chechen because “about 20,000 Kumyks live there.”

            Brontoy Bedyurov, a spiritual leader from the Altay, said that those proposing to redraw the map of Russia failed to recognize that Russia is not “a mono-ethnic state” and  to undertand that it has “never been based on the principles of nationalism and the rule of one ethnos over others.”

            Magomed Omarov, vice president of the Kontinent Foundation for Ethno-Political Research, said that calls for doing away with the non-Russian republics “are dangerous because they reflect definite tendencies in society.”  But he noted that they “contradict the official documents of the Russian Federation and the interests of the state.”

            Denis Sokolov, the head of the RAMCOM Center for Social-Economic Research on the Regions, noted that those who propose eliminating the non-Russian republics forget that “the overwhelming majority” of predominantly Russian regions are not economically self-sufficient either.

            Yevgeny Bahrevsy, a senior research at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research (RISI), said that those who want to do away with the non-Russian republics focus only on economics rather than on broader questions of culture and politics. Whatever problems exist in the non-Russian republics, territorial divisions elsewhere also have their drawbacks.

            Zeydulla Yuzbekov, a professor at Moscow State University, said that Russia had always been “a center of attraction” for peoples around the world because of its diversity. Doing away with the non-Russian republics would undercut that. Consequently, everyone should remember that “a beautiful bouquet always consists of various flowers.”

            And Aliy Totorkulov, the president of the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus, said that the notion that the non-Russian republics should be eliminated reflected a dangerous tendency to elevate economics above everything else rather than recognize that it is only one factor among many that a state must consider.”
            In its reports on this meeting, the Gumilyev Center suggested that despite their diversity of opinion on many issues, the roundtable participants were united in their conviction that Russia must not become a “melting pot” of peoples “in which unique national cultures will disappear” and that Moscow must make their survival “a priority task.”

            To do so, the Gumilyev Center suggested, would “correspond with the historical traditions of Russia, the mentality of the Russian people, and the pragmatic interests of the contemporary Russian Federation.” Obviously, “problems in the republics exist,” but trying to solve them by doing away with the republics would lead to “still greater problems.”

            What makes this roundtable’s conclusions particularly important, of course, is that its defense of the non-Russian republics comes from a group with broad ties to many parts of the Russian nationalist spectrum.  And that suggests any new push by the Kremlin to amalgamate the republics will be opposed by groups many assume would be its most enthusiastic supporters.