Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Playing Ethnic Card During Duma Election Campaign Exacerbating Russia’s Relations with Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 12 – Some Russian politicians to attract attention during the current Duma election campaign have played up ethnic problems between ethnic Russians and the titular nationalities of the Central Asian countries, a trend that has further exacerbated relations between Moscow and that region given the Kremlin’s current line regarding that region.

            While expressions of concern about the beating of a nine-year-old Russian boy in Kyrgyzstan or the insistence by Kazakh store clerks that Russians speak Kazakh with them might pass without much notice most of the time, both have been elevated because of the attention they have received from Russian Duma candidates and the Moscow media.

            And because they appear to fit into a larger pattern of Kremlin demands for deference to its interests by Central Asian governments and Russian attacks on any moves by Central Asians toward greater independence from Moscow, this attention is raising questions in the capitals of the region as to what the Russian government intends to do next.

            In Novaya gazeta, journalists Vyacheslav Polovinko and Natalya Glukhova examine both the incidents themselves and the reactions of Russian politicians during this electoral season and consider what these reactions may mean (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/08/12/vam-russkim-iazykom-bylo-skazano).

            Sergey Abashin, an anthropologist at St. Petersburg’s European University, says that in his view, the Russian politicians have picked up on this issue to attract attention to themselves and their sense that doing so has only an upside in Russia because of all the talk about ethnic Russians abroad and their rights by the powers that be.

            Last year, the scholar notes, Russia inserted into its constitution language reflecting its concern about Russians and Russian speakers and not just about Russian citizens into its constitution, “an imperial idea” which suggests that Moscow has the right to supervise what other countries do in this regard.

            The question now, the two Novaya gazeta journalist says, is “what might the next step be?”  Andrye Grozin, a Central Asian specialist at the Institute for the CIS Countries, says that Moscow could decide to pull the remaining ethnic Russians out of the region. That wouldn’t cost Moscow that much and it would send a clear signal to the rest of the former Soviet space.

            For the moment, both Moscow television personalities like Vladimir Solovyev and Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin want to play up the tensions that exist in order to warn the Central Asian countries that Moscow has the power to do something to harm them and that they should not think they can act as they like without reference to Russian interests.

            This constitutes a shift for Moscow’s approach to Kazakhstan given that Russia has not gotten that involved with Kazakhstan’s domestic arrangements in the past, and it may prove explosive, Polovinko and Glukhova suggest, especially as Kazakhs are furious about the latest Russian comments (novgaz.com/index.php/2-news/2716-«пробные-шары»-жириновского).

            According to Arkady Dubnov, a Russian specialist on Central Asia, the people in that region have cause of anger and concern given that Moscow has often used charges of the mistreatment of ethnic Russians as the basis for more forceful intervention in neighboring countries as it did most prominently before the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

            But what Russian politicians are saying and the general line the Kremlin is offering reflects something else, fear and anger in Moscow that the countries of Central Asia are moving ever further away from Russia and that the actions of individuals in those countries are a manifestation of that shift.

            “If one considers that in 2023 the opening of direct air flights between Kazakhstan and the US will take place,” the two Novaya gazeta journalists say, “any step to the right or left now will be treated by the Kremlin as an attempt to flee,” despite Kazakhstan’s repeated statements that it is “not going anywhere.”

            That is because, the two say, “the republic’s attempts to be free, peaceful and completely independent no longer fit into Russia’s new policy of ingathering lands and peoples.” The recent remarks by Russian politicians, even if they are the product of an election campaign, point to the existence of “a time bomb whose timer is already set.”

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