Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russian Federation Needs At Least Two Generations to Form a Common Identity, Malashenko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 9 – It will take “at a minimum two generations” for the various identities in the Russian Federation to come together to form a united civic nation, a process that will be all the more prolonged because except in the major cities, the country does not have a civil society, according to Aleksey Malashenko.

            The Moscow Carnegie Center scholar says that at present “it is impossible to say” just what “this substrate” of “[non-ethnic] Russian identity will look like.” But “we don’t live in the clouds or behind an iron curtain,” and therefore it will reflect not only domestic but various international trends (

            In a commentary published in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” yesterday, Malashenko discusses several of them, pointing out that many writers and officials spend so much time talking about how unique Russia is and will be that they fail to consider how it actually is and what it might actually become.

            It is said, he points out, “the USSR fell apart because Tajikistan and Estonia could not have a common flag. Can the Far East and Chechnya perhaps have one?”  More than half of Russians do not currently think that Chechnya and Daghestan are really part of Russia, and  more than one in four say the same thing about Tatarstan.

             There is some common identity among non-ethnic Russians, but it is quite thin. Consequently, the Moscow scholar says, he is quite skeptical about the prospects for the term “rossiyane,” the Russian term for those who identify as Russians but not only or not at all in ethnic terms.

            Whether a Soviet people existed is something, he says, he is not prepared to say, although far more was done by the Soviet state and the CPSU to impose it than is currently being contemplated by the Russian authorities now.

            Instead, the latter say that “civic values must unite us.”  But those “can arise only where there is a civil society.” It exists in part in Moscow and the major cities but where else? Instead, “everyone living in our country which only recently appeared on the map is occupied with the formation of his own identity, the identity of his family and of his children.”

            Some people in Russia today are pushing a Eurasian identity. But “ask a Russian, a Tatar or an Avar if he considers himself to be an Asian or a Euro-Asian.”  “Hardly anyone will answer ‘yes’ definitively.” People understand Europe and Asia, “but a ‘Eurasian perestroika’ is not understandable a priori.”  Instead, there is in it “something false.”

            Almost the same thing can be said about attempts to push an imperial identity.  For many, the empire is equivalent to the borders of the USSR.  But that state did not last very long, and consequently it cannot provide the basis for a new identity within the Russian Federation’s current borders.

            Malashenko argues that “Russia is a country of regions just as America is a country of states.”  And while the residents of some US states don’t like the residents of other states, the existence of the states holds the country together precisely because of their diversity.  But “in Russia, its regions divide” the country because Moscow does not want to recognize the diversity.

            “What do Russia’s regions want? That they be allowed to live as they want. They want that they be respected and taken into consideration.  It is awful to think but they want to choose their own governors.” In short, Malashenko says, “the regions want normal relations” wth the center they want the federalism that is enshrined in the constitution.

            But the central authorities “fear federalism.”  They offer assistance in exchange for loyalty, and they are unwilling to divide authority.  “It is not easy” to do that, Malashenko continues, “but without it, Russia will not correspond to its official name, the Russian Federation.”

            The reason the central authorities fear federalism is not so much that they think there will be a new “parade of sovereignties” about which so much ink has been spilled but rather “the authorities are afraid that under federalism they will remain without power,” that federalism with its clear division of powers will prevent them from exercising hands’ on power.

            Consequently, Moscow refuses to cede any powers, and over time, “local self-consciousness intensifies in the regions, and ethno-religious self-consciousness intensifies in the national republics.”  That wouldn’t be a problem if the vectors of both paralleled that of the country as a whole.  But in Russia today, that is often not the case.

            Islamic self-identification doesn’t correspond to a civic Russian one, the Moscow scholar continues. It “exists independently and is linked more closely to processes taking place in the world’s Islamic umma.”  But that is something that is “completely explicable.”

            “Much more challenging” is “the aggressive self-identification of [ethnic] Russian regions, including the so-called resource rich ones.” This phenomenon includes a Siberian identity “with its slogan of ‘stop feeding Moscow.’”  Moreover, there is a Kaliningrad identity, a Far Eastern identity, and “even” a St. Petersburg identity.

            This list could be extended because it reflects a survival from the recent demise of the Soviet Union.  After 1991, people asked who should be feeding whom, an indication that they no longer felt a common responsibility.  But it is important, Malashenko continues, not to “exaggerate” this.

            That regions are focusing on themselves in the first instance “not separatism. It is only to put it more politely [their] sense of being ‘not Russia.’ The regions live separately from the capital.” They may or may not be going anywhere, but “Russia as before bears the burden of its unnaturally enormous space, which alas is half destroyed.”

            This space can be “knitted together” again only by forming “for all parts of the country a mutually rewarding from the point of view of economic interests and political demands path of development.” If that doesn’t happen, the Moscow scholar says, then instead, there will “immediately appear several paths – Siberian, Kaliningrader, Muscovite – and if you look out still further, Orthodox and Islamic.”

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