Sunday, July 23, 2017

Is Putin Aiming to Make the Russians the Only ‘Nation’ Left in Russia?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 22 – For much of the last year, there has been a lively debate in Russia over plans, approved by Vladimir Putin and pushed by experts like Academician Valery Tishkov, to redefine the population of Russia as “a civic Russian nation” with the ethnic Russian nation being the state-forming core of this constellation.

            Not surprisingly, that idea has sparked outrage among some ethnic Russians who see it as a diminution of their status or a dilution of their identity and also among many non-Russians who see it as a threat to their future status as nations and thus opening the way to the destruction of their languages and political institutions.

            Putin’s remarks earlier this week in Ioshkar-Ola about the relative rights of Russian and non-Russian languages have only intensified those fears about the non-Russian portion of the population.  But sadly there is a straw in the wind that suggests the Kremlin leader may have even more radical ideas about the future.

            At the Ioshkar-Ola meeting, Igor Barinov, the head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, said that he had proposed to Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin that a “House of the Peoples of Russia” be established on the premises and basis of “the Moscow House of Nationalities” which has existed there since the 1990s (

            Barinov, who noted that Putin had called for the creation of “a House of the Peoples of Russia” last October in Astrakhan (where the civic Russian nation law began to be promoted), said that such a step would “allow for saving budgetary funds and more effectively achieving the tasks that have been set.”

            Those may be the only reasons for this proposal, but words matter and the decision to speak of “peoples” rather than “nationalities” in this case is potentially a threat to non-Russians given the context within which it is being proposed. 

            In Soviet times, the Russians were always described as “a nation,” while the non-Russians were classified as “nationalities,” a lesser and offensive status. “Peoples” in contrast either referred to the entire “Soviet people” or to the collection of nations, nationalities, and (still smaller) ethnographic groups.

            If Putin’s regime is simply returning to that latter meaning, it is not a positive development but it is not necessarily a fatal one for non-Russians. But there is another more disturbing possibility. As long as ethnic groups are considered “nations” or “nationalities,” they at least in principle have the right to self-determination under international law.

            That doesn’t necessarily mean state independence, of course, but also involves the existence of structures like national republics that some of the non-Russians within the borders of the Russian Federation currently have.

            If however Moscow begins to speak only of “peoples,” a more nebulous category that doesn’t entail self-determination, rather than “nationalities” or “nations,” that do, such a change could set the stage for new moves against the non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation and a further degradation of the status of the nations on which they are based.


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