Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Moves to Re-Establish Nationalities Ministry He Abolished in 2001

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 6 – Apparently operating on the principle that if there is a problem, there should be a government structure responsible for it, President Vladimir Putin is moving to recreate in fact if not in name a ministry to oversee the Russian Federation’s increasingly intense nationality problems.

            But for the same reasons that such a structure failed at the start of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, this move is likely to come up short as well. That is because unless it is given the powers of a super ministry, something that unlikely to happen, it won’t be able to address ethnic issues now affecting and within the purview of other ministries and state structures.

            Consequently, as some Moscow critics are already pointing out, this latest institutional return to the past only highlights the extent to which Putin in his third term currently lacks any new ideas on how to deal with one of the country’s most neuralgic but currently most explosive problems.

            Ever since Putin disbanded the nationalities ministry at the start of his first term, some commentators and experts have called for its restoration. Such calls increased in frequency and intensity after Putin himself during the 2012 presidential campaign devoted an entire article to the nationality problem.

            Specifically, the Russian president said, that there needs to be established in the system of federal organs of power a special structure responsible for issues of national development, inter-ethnic well-being and the inter-action of ethnoses.” The Ministry for Regional Development, he continued, was treating these issues only as a second or third-level task.

            Not surprisingly, many Putin supporters began to propose the establishment of a new nationalities ministry, following the president’s logic of creating a structure for every problem. But many, including Regional Affairs Minister Basargin and Vice Prime Minster Dmitry Kozak opposed it (

            Yesterday, Moscow’s “Kommersant” cited a Kremlin source as saying that Putin’s call on November 1 for the reorganization of the regional affairs ministry “in fact” represents “the restoration of the Ministry for Nationality Affairs,” a fact the president’s press spokesman appeared to confirm (

                According to the paper, the regional affairs ministry will acquire an additional structure that will involve “regional representatives,” and “it is possible, “Kommersant” continued, that “this will be a government non-commercial organization” which will include “a unique monitoring center with sections in each subject of the Russian Federation.”

            The paper provided no additional details and said that the new arrangements would be finalized in the coming weeks. No surprisingly, that provoked discussion.  Sergey Markov, a political scientist at Moscow State University, told “Kommersant” that “of course a second Ministry for Nationalities is being established.”

            But it is “another question,” he continued, whether the ministry will have sufficient clout to do very much.  “For this, [the person in charge] needs to be at a minimum a vice prime minister.”  Markov said that whatever arrangements were made, the new structure must focus on the defense of ethnic Russians as much as on that of smaller non-Russian groups.

            Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Foundation, was more dismissive. He told “Kommersant” that by taking this step, the Kremlin was giving the appearance of action without actually doing anything. Even if the new structure is put in place, he said, Moscow will continue its ad hoc approach to ethnic problems.

                Margarita Lyange, the head of the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism, suggested that earlier efforts by the Russian government to create an effective structure in this area had failed because the Kremlin was not prepared to cede enough power to it, a view shared by former nationalities minister Vladimir Zorin ( and

            But the most sweeping denunciation of the latest bureaucratic move was offered by Svelanta Gannushkina, chairman of the Civic Support Committee.  She told that the regional development ministry had not improved the ethnic situation in the country and that its lack of transparency did not bode well (

            But Vyacheslav Mkhailov who served as nationalities minister in the early 1990s was more optimistic at least regarding reports that Aleksandr Kotenkov will head the new structure within the regional affairs ministry. He suggested Kotenkov had significant experience because of his role in managing the Osetin-Ingush conflict (

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