Saturday, July 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Effort to Create a Single Civic Nation Itself Sparking Ethnic Tensions, Ethnographer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 13 – Moscow’s effort to create a unified civic Russian nation at a time when ethnic Russian national identity is weakening and the national identities of many non-Russian nations are intensify is sparking ethnic tensions, according to Oleg Kirichenko, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology.

            Kirichenko says that in this situation, “other peoples have come to feel their superiority over” the ethnic Russians, something the latter “undoubtedly feel” and thus “react so sharply to manifestations of well-organized” non-Russian groups “on territories which they consider their own” (

                The Moscow ethnographer’s observation is just one in a roundup of opinion about why interethnic relations in the Russian Federation appear to be deteriorating, a subject that’s Elena Meygun says it is time for “an honest diagnosis” rather than political posturing.

            The range of the answers of those she queried is truly breathtaking. Omar Ibragimov, an advisor to the permanent representation of Daghestan in Moscow, says that the media are playing a major role by focusing on crimes “persons of Caucasus nationality” commit and ignoring crimes that members of other nations carry out.

            But other experts said that Ibragimov gets it exactly backward: The media focuses on ethnic crimes because members of some groups such as the North Caucasians, as a result of discussions of ethnic issues in the media and society, are prone to commit particularly serious infractions.

            Another expert, Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Council, suggests that conflicts sometimes get out of hand because the population doesn’t trust the police or prosecutors and feels that it has to take independent action to punish those who have attacked someone of their own ethnic group.

            Aleksey Mikhaylov, a former air force lieutenant general and chairman of the Council of Patriotic Organizations, says that a major and often neglected explanation for ethnic conflicts is the propensity of some political figures to “use ethnic crime for the solution of their own tasks” regardless of what that means for society as a whole.

            Said-Akhmed Elesov, Chechen permanent representative to the Middle Volga, agrees with Mikhaylov. He suggests that those who call for violence after some crime has been committed almost always are not related to the victims as would be the case in the North Caucasus but rather “those who have decided to earn dividends” from what has happened.

             Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, suggests that “the real cause” of ethnic conflicts” lies with social problems like unemployment and hopelessness, factors that “create ideal conditions for the rise of aggression.” He notes that many people believe that greater information is “a panacea,” but that is not always the case.

            “Many in the government,” he continues, “forget or do not want to see how ethnic mobilization takes place alongside ethno-cultural enlightenment.  And they are very surprised when this is in part transformed into various forms of nationalism” and the conflicts arising from that process.

            Academician Valery Tishkov, the director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, urges as he has before “not to dramatize the situation” but instead “to take the multi-national quality of the country as a given,” a situation in which ethnicity is not the primary or the only identity.

            The creation of a supra-national identity is not only possible but has a precedent in Soviet times: the USSR created what it called “’the united community of the Soviet people.’”  That country fell apart, however as Elena Meygun notes, before that experiment could be completed.  Time will tell whether the non-ethnic Russian nation will do better.

            She acknowledges that “the idea of friendship of the peoples for a certain time really kept the country from fratricidal conflicts, but without constant administrative-ideological support, this [idea] had disappeared by the mid-1990s.”  And now there is a new trend that is worrisome: inter-ethnic marriages are declining in number, reflecting mobilization along ethnic lines.

            Consequently, Meygun says, the picture today is not too pleasant: “the main ethos of the country is rapidly losing its consciousness of itself as a nation; the numerically smaller peoples are attempting to survive with the help of preferences from the state; and the national republics are actively pushing their independence on the basis of budgetary subventions.”

            Moreover, she continues, “at the same time from neighboring countries in a practically uncontrolled fashion are arriving people for whom work for kopecks and life in what are from our point of view inhuman conditions is preferable to remaining at home.  Can one hope for peace and concord among participants in a struggle for survival?”

            Up to now, she suggests, “the attempts of the authorities to solve the problem of inter-ethnic conflicts recall the addressing of the symptoms of the disease and not its causes.”  What is happening in Pugachev and elsewhere shows that the temperature is going up. If that is to be reversed, she says, “an honest diagnosis” and a struggle with the “real causes” are needed.

            Clearly, “it is impossible to create a single nation in a state here de facto there are not established equal conditions for the development of various ethnoses or where highly organized  minorities seek to employ violence in an effort to impose medieval norms of behavior on a disoriented majority.”

            “The degradation of society in this direction,” Meygun concludes, “will lead to the collapse of the country.  The unification and strengthening of a multi-national state [like the Russian Federation] is possible only on the basis of conditions of equality and justie in all spheres of the life of society without exception.”

            “In such conditions,” the commentator says, “no one will have to be forced to feel himself part of a single multi-national nation, the [non-ethnic] Russian nation.”

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