Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Three Statistics with Long Shadows for Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – Three newly released statistics – one on births in Kazakhstan, a second on how Russians understand events in Ukraine, and a third on where websites of the .ru domain are hosted – say more about where the Russian Federation is heading than do more prominent declarations of Moscow political leaders.

            At the very least, they highlight some underlying realities with which the Russian authorities are going to have to cope especially given that the capacity of Moscow to change any of them is far more limited than many either in the Russian capital or elsewhere appear to believe.

            The first, reported from Astana yesterday, is that 91 percent of the growth of the population is the result of births of ethnic Kazakhs and that combined with migration patterns 97 percent of the population growth of that Central Asian country as a whole consists of ethnic Kazakhs (rosbalt.ru/exussr/2014/02/17/1234317.html).

            That pattern reflects the age structure of the population – far more ethnic Kazakhs are in the prime childrearing age cohorts than are the ethnic Russians there – as well as far higher fertility rates among the ethnic Kazakhs than among the ethnic Russians and means that Kazakhstan like the other former Soviet republics will become increasingly non-Russian.

            This development has at a minimum three serious consequences. First, it means that these countries will be ever more distinct with Moscow having less leverage as a result. Second, it means that for many Russians in the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan will be a less attractive partner than it was when there were nearly as many ethnic Russians there as ethnic Kazakhs.

            And third, it means that Kazakhstan will increasingly play the role of a Central Asian country rather than as one between Central Asia and Russia.  In Soviet times, Russian writers always referred to the region as “Central Asia and Kazakhstan.”  That is no longer true, and it opens the way to a far more complicated geopolitics than the one Moscow has faced.

            (This development is important to Moscow in yet another way: It highlights a similar pattern inside the Russian Federation as well, where as a result of differences in fertility rates and migration, the non-Russian republics are increasingly non-Russian, a recapitulation of the pattern that characterized the end of the Soviet period and contributed to the demise of the USSR.)

            The second, reported last week by VTsIOM, is that 46 percent of Russians believe that the Ukrainian protests are the work of Western intelligence services and another 30 percent believe they are the result of the struggle of political clans within the leadership of Ukraine (nr2.ru/kiev/484011.html).

            At one level, of course, this is little more than an indication that the image of Ukraine that Russian state television has promoted has been accepted by the Russian population. But at another, deeper level, it is one that calls attention to an aspect of Russian society that most do not want to highlight.

            These figures suggest that Russians view political activities as the work of others rather than something the citizenry can get involved in, a confession as it were by the population of its own political impotence and of its willingness to be ruled by elites because of its belief that that is the way the world works.

            While the Kremlin may be pleased that Russians believe that and thus will not challenge the regime, such attitudes profoundly limit the ability of the authorities to mobilize the population for anything short of repelling an invasion. Consequently, what Russians say they believe about Ukraine may be more important as a statement about themselves.

            And third, as “Izvestiya” reported today, 35 percent of the .ru domain websites are now hosted abroad.  Of the 3.54 million working .ru sites, 2.31 million are hosted in the Russian Federation, 671,000 in Germany, and 211,000 in the United State. Dot ru in Cyrillic sites, in contrast, are more often hosted inside Russia (izvestia.ru/news/566024).

            Some of the reasons for this pattern are historical – hosting companies abroad developed earlier and faster than those in Russia – while others have to do with price and service – foreign hosting companies have lower rates and faster service.  But a major factor is that those sites hosted abroad are less susceptible to state control.

            That is underscored by the fact that, as the experts with whom the Moscow paper talked, “after the appearance of laws about black lists [of websites], the number of resources which migrated to the West, grew” because “for a number of sites it was more secure to be located beyond the jurisdiction of Russia.”

            On the one hand, this pattern highlights the now-familiar ways in which the Internet remains far more independent of any state than do other forms of media which have to be based on a specific territory. But on the other, it may mean that despite the fact that the Cyrillic dot ru domain has not taken off, Moscow may again start pushing it in the name of national loyalty.

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