Saturday, October 27, 2018

New Nationality Strategy Opens Way to More Russian Chauvinism and Drive toward a Unitary State, Pain and Arutyunov Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 27 – The much-delayed new edition of Moscow’s “Strategy for the State Nationality Policy of the Russian Federation” that was presented to Vladimir Putin yesterday opens the way to both the growth of great power chauvinism and a new attack on Russian federalism, according to two of the country’s most distinguished specialists.

            The document, which Putin asked for more than two years ago and which was supposed to lead to a law defining the non-ethnic Russian nation but hasn’t, at least not yet, has attracted most attention from Russians and non-Russians for its elaboration of two controversial concepts, the non-ethnic Russian nation and the state-forming role of the ethnic Russian one.

            Those remain extremely controversial. Both ethnic Russians and non-Russians see the notion of a non-ethnic Russian nation as a threat, in the first case because they believe that it dilutes the special nature of the Russian ethnic nation and in the second because they see it as opening the way to a new wave of mass assimilation directed against them.

            And the document’s support for the ethnic Russians as the state-forming nation at the same time raises problems as well. On the one hand, it appears to contradict the notion of a supra-national non-ethnic Russian nation; and on the other, it certainly formalizes a hierarchy of nations within the Russian Federation with the Russians at the top and the others below.

            Many Russian nationalists are welcoming the new document, describing it as opening the way to “a new order” in Moscow’s nationality policy (,  and “new order.”

            And for exactly the reasons they are, both non-Russians and specialists on ethnic conflict are expressing concern about what it will mean both to everyone who isn’t an ethnic Russian and to the structures and laws that have provided the non-Russians with at least a minimal defense against the centralizing and Russian-nationalizing impulses of the center.

                Lyailya Mustafina of Radio Svoboda’s IdelReal portal interviewed three of the most important.  Margarita Lyange, head of the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism, said the reason the strategy document had not been finished before now is that Russian nationalists wanted it to tilt even more in their direction than it does (

            Emil Pain, an ethno-sociologist who is perhaps Russia’s most distinguished specialists on ethnic conflict, said that the document was “extraordinarily eclectic,” simultaneously drawing ideas from the theories of civic nationhood and invoking others that have a direct relationship to “the idea of an imperial organization of society and a hierarchy of ethnic groups.”

            The latter appears to be the more important in terms of what Moscow is likely to do next, the ethnic conflict specialist says, and reflects a victory for Russian nationalists, “both pro-Kremlin and anti-Kremlin,” who have “struggled for several generations” to declare the ethnic Russians the state-forming and dominant nation.

            The authorities, Pain continues, had tried to avoid making this concession in the past, but over the last year, Kremlin decisions and especially the elimination of the requirement that students in the non-Russian republics study the language of the titular nationality, show the direction the wind is blowing in Moscow.

            A third expert, Sergey Arutyunov, an ethnographer who specializes on the North Caucasus, says that the new strategy document strengthens the already requite strong “unitarist tendencies” in Russian society and points to a further degradation of what remains of federalism.  According to him, this will lead to “a dead end” and “nothing good.”      

            The three Russian experts are almost certainly right on all points; but it should be kept in mind that strategy documents in the Russian system are not laws and are typically crafted in such a way that leaders can pick and choose what portions of them they will in fact insist on and what ones they will ignore.

            That makes the comments of Putin and two others directly involved with the preparation of this document especially important. First, Putin himself indicated in accepting the document that he would show far more understanding to ethnic Russian concerns than to any non-Russian ones (

                The Kremlin leader suggested that it was entirely understandable why ethnic Russians don’t want to live near Roma encampments because the latter are centers of crime and the drug trade, an ethnic slur that almost certainly will be read by some Russians as an indication that hostility to non-Russians will be defended at the highest levels.

            Second, Oleg Melnichenko, head of the Federation Council committee on federalism, said that the new document needed to be revised even before it is finally confirmed because it does not correspond to the requirements of the already approved Strategy on the Special Development of Russia (

                Academic Valery Tishkov, a former nationalities minister and head of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and a leading proponent of civic Russian national identity, agreed and extended Melnichenko’s words to suggest Moscow should stop deferring to the titular nationalities of non-Russian republics on appointments but select the best people regardless of ethnicity.

                That may sound neutral and anodyne, but it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s moves in that direction, declared even before he became CPSU leader, that triggered violence in Kazakhstan when he replaced an ethnic Kazakh with an ethnic Russian in December 1986 and were a significant contributing factor to the disintegration of the USSR.

            And third, Tishkov himself suggested that the new strategy document should lead Moscow to change the way it handles nationality and language in the upcoming 2020 all-Russian census (

            He said that “it is necessary to shift from the practice of requiring respondents to indicate their nationality only according to one of their parents and their native language as the language of the corresponding nationality.”

            That too may sound neutral and even respectable, but it has some potentially negative consequences for non-Russians first of all and ethnic Russians as well. On the one hand, it will muddy the waters as to what nation an individual belongs to, weaken that attachment and allow officials to decide even more than now which one he or she is a member of. 

            And on the other, it will almost certainly be used by those who think as Tishkov does to water down the share of non-Russians in the non-Russian republics and thus provide a superficially plausible justification for doing away with such republics by combining them with predominantly ethnic Russian regions.

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