Thursday, February 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Clashes Replacing Political Protests as Dominant Form of Public Activism in Russia, Pain Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 13 – Ethnic clashes especially in the regions appear to have displaced political protests in Moscow as the dominant form of activism in the Russian Federation, a trend certain to have dangerous consequences given that the authorities are far less concerned about the former than the latter, according to Russia’s leading expert on ethnic conflict.

            In an article in the new issue of “Druzhba narodov,” Emil Pain, who directs the Moscow Center of Ethno-Political and Regional Research, says that the dilatory and compromising approach of the authorities to ethnic clashes contrasts sharply with its immediate and harsh crackdown on any political manifestations (

            That contrasting approach by the power vertical sends a clear message that ordinary residents of the Russian Federation fully understand, even if the authorities cannot be held responsible for instigating ethnic conflicts. Moreover, it is one, Pain suggests, that helps to explain what has happened already and what is likely to occur in the future. 

            One figure suggests just how radical this shift has been, the ethnic specialist suggests. In Russia in 2006, there was only one Kondopoga; last year, there were five such clashes, most of which lasted more than a day, involved the use of violence, and resulted “in several cases” in casualties.

            Such clashes, of course, “represent only a small part of the manifestation of the sharpening of the inter-ethnic situation in Russia,” he continues.  According to government officials, the number of crimes of an extremist character rose by 500 percent between 2004 and 2012. And many experts say that it is “impossible to predict” where the next clashes will be.

            The situation appeared to change during the elections in Moscow, but once those elections were over and at least in part because of some of the rhetoric of the candidates, “when the political meetings died out, protests [in Moscow and elsewhere] returned to the customary ethnic pattern.”

            One reason ethnic conflicts are easier to incite is that their slogans are simpler and draw on the primordial ties of the population.  That is especially true in Russia, Pain says, because Russian society has “a pre-civic culture” and thus is “extremely defenseless against any stereotypes.” But there are other factors at work.

            Various social-psychological factors play a role as well, but however important they may be, Pain continues, “the most important in unleashing the spiral of inter-ethnic hatred are political ones.” The rhetoric of political leaders far more than stories in the media are “many times” more influential on the population.

            Consequently, “if the authorities make a mistake [in this area], it immediately has an impact on the social climate.”

            And Pain makes clear that he thinks they have on more than one occasion.  The fact that “the authorities are much less concerned by pogroms and murders than by quiet political demonstrators” has an effect, as do the unfortunate willingness of some political figures and officials to play to the xenophobic attitudes of the population in the hopes of winning support.

            Pain points out that in Russia today, “the word ‘migrant’ is used in the Russian political lexicon as a pseudonym for the coded designation of certain ethnic and regional groups,” a continuation of what was a Soviet tradition. He recalls for example that Stalin talked about cosmopolitans but everyone knew he meant Jews.

            Today in Moscow, he points out, no one calls people from Petersburg, Tyumen or Orel “migrants.” They do not even use it to designate those from Tatarstan or Bashkortostan let alone fom Belarus or Ukraine.  Instead, as everyone understands, it refers in the first instance to people from the Caucasus and then to those from Central Asia.

            And as a result, the Moscow specialist argues, those who talk about “’the problem of immigants’” are employing “a euphemism” which hides two other problems: the government’s “unjust and ineffective regional policy” and its “schizophrenic” approach to Central Asia and the Caucasus in which it seeks to build alliances with the regimes but is hostile to people from there.

            Pain points out as well that “the growth of xenophobia and Russian nationalism has a diect impact not only on the growth of a negative response among ethnic and elligious minorities.” Even “more dangerously,” it affects the expansion of terrorism which “covers itself with supposedly Islamic ideas.”

            Terrorist actions in the North Caucasus are not only a esponse to the growth of Russian nationalsm, he suggests, “but the connection between these two phenomena is obvious.”

            There is a very great danger that the country will fall into a vicious cycle: “Russian nationalism will intensify Islamic terrorism which in its turn will provoke new outbursts of Russian nationalism.”  And that is all the more likely if the government continues to repress other forms of civic rather than ethnic political protest


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