Saturday, June 29, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Fewer than Half of RF Citizens See Themselves as ‘Civic’ Rather than Ethnic Russians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – Only 45 percent of the citizens of the Russian Federation currently view themselves as members of a civic Russian nation, a poll finding that has forced Moscow to reduce its hopes that it will be able to convince 86 percent of the country’s residents to identify in that way by 2018. Now, officials say, they hope to raise the number to 64 percent.

                “Moskovsky komsomolets” reported the results of this Regional Affairs Ministry poll on Thursday ( Today, Aleksey Polubota who writes regularly on ethnic and regional issues for “Svobodnaya pressa,” provides an analysis (

            Polubota suggests that among the most important reasons for Moscow’s lowering of its sights on this issue are resistance among ethnic Russians to a step they see as a denigration of their status, Moscow’s inability to find enough money to promote this identity, and the weakness of the state itself which means that fewer RF citizens are interested in identifying with it.

            The “Svobodnaya pressa” analyst spoke with three experts about these issues, Pavel Salin, the director of the Moscow Center for Political Research of the Finance University, Egor Kholmogorov, a Russian nationalist who serves as the editor in chief of the “Russky Obozrevatel” online journal, and Iosef Diskin, co-chairman of the Council on National Strategy.

            Salin said that Moscow in the early 1990s had set itself what was “in principle a realistic task” of getting people to identify as civic rather than ethnic Russians. After all, that is what the leader of the USSR had done and done with a great deal of success in promoting a Soviet identity until the time of the Soviet collapse.

            Even now, older people continue to share in that identity, he continued, with people over 50 tending to be far more internationalist than younger groups, a division that “is characteristic not only for Russia but also for the other post-Soviet states.” Given that base, it was not unreasonable for the Russian government to think it could do the same.

            But the post-Soviet Russian government has not been able to do so and “for one simple reason,” Salin argued. “The base for a single civic nation always is a powerful state,” and that means a state and “not a personalist power” which is what the Russian Federation has had over the last two decades.
            “In the USSR, state institutions as a whole worked, and people felt on their own skins the power of the state which one way or another defends them. But in the post-Soviet years, the state constantly has suffered from erosion and is falling apart. Its institutions are being replaced by sub-institutions like corruption and clans ethnic and otherwise.”

                “The state as such has been very much weakened,” Salin said, adding that “in such circumstances it is impossible to support a former identity let alone create a new one.”

            “In the USSR, the process of forming a new identity went in parallel with the process of forming a powerful state. But the contemporary Russian authorities, despite all their declarations have not put the creation of a strong state as their task in principle.” They are quite willing to live with a personalist one, something few beyond their ranks can identify with.

            RF citizens are thus disappointed, and consequently they are seeking other things to identify with, including their families and ethnic nations. That is particularly the case among ethnic Russians living in cities where the atomization of society is the greatest, but it is found elsewhere as well.
            Many members of other nationalities are prepared to identify as civic Russians because “they have greater benefits from the existing situation in the country and therefore with greater willingness identify themselves with Russia as a whole.” When abroad, Salin continued, they even identify themselves as civic Russians.

            But among urbanized groups of these ethnic communities such as the Tatars, “there is a growing feeling of injustice” and consequently they too are turning to their own ethno-national identifications.  For all these reasons, the Moscow analyst said, “only a small part of the population wants to feel itself as a representative of a political Russian nation.”

            For his part, Kholmogorov argued that the ministry poll overstates the number of people in the RF who identify as civic Russians.  That is an artificial construct, he said, one that was pushed by Boris Yeltsin precisely as an alternative to the ethnic one and thus viewed by ethnic Russians as an attack on their prerogatives as the majority nation in the country.

            But Diskin drew a rather different conclusion.  According to him, there is “a clear tendency” for RF citizens to shift from an ethnic to a political identity, although he conceded that this would take time as does any identity shift.

            “At the beginning of the 1990s,” he pointed out “the majority of citizens of Russia considered themselves to be Soviet people but since then the formation of a civic Russian nation has gone forward.  This process will continue.” And he suggested that “ethnicity today is not the chief form of self-identification” for many.

                As evidence of that, he noted that “people may say that ‘I am a Russian’ or ‘I am an Avar’ but at football matches they will sing together the hymn of the Russian Federation” and more generally, most of them will not see any conflict between those two levels of identity even if “a small part of society” does.

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