Vienna, March 20 – The Kremlin may be thinking about restricting the activities of ethnic groups in the Russian capital that often serve as conduits of information between the far-flung regions of the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and human rights organizations and Western institutions, on the other.
Earlier this year, Valeriy Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnography who chairs the Commission on Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience in the RF Social Chamber, said that these groups have played a useful role for those studying in the Russian capital or forced to flee because of authoritarian leaders in the region.
“But to everything there is a limit,” Tishkov continued, one “dictated not only by the national interests of the country but also by the norms of political ethics.” And many of these groups have crossed that line by providing materials to “professional international provocateurs” (http://www.mari.ee/rus/articles/polit/2007/02/02_4.html).
This has been particularly the case, the Moscow ethnographer said, in the case of Mari organizations, who have routinely passed information about the situation in Mari El not only to the three Finno-Ugric countries of Estonia, Finland and Hungary but also to various European institutions.
Because Tishkov often reflects the views of the Kremlin, his remarks are chilling. Were these ethnic organizations closed down, that would limit communication between the regions and the outside world and the ability of ethnic groups, especially those without or deprived of territorial institutions to incubate a new generation of leaders.
Disturbingly, that may be precisely the point.
It is important to remember just what these institutions are. They should not be confused with official offices of non-Russian regions in the capital like the Permanent Representation of Sakha-Yakutia which last week marked its 85th anniversary (http://ysia.ru/print.asp?id=160307_12), and which serve as a link between Moscow and regional officialdom.
Instead, these groups in both Moscow and St. Petersburg unite and provide a sense of community to members of ethnic groups who have come to these cities to study, work and live, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes because they have been forced to leave because of political conditions in their home areas.
In the late 1980s and especially in the 1990s, these groups flourished, with many of them meeting frequently and even establishing their own Internet sites. (For a description of these groups, including their hypertext links, in Moscow, see http://www.mdn.ru/ and in St. Petersburg, see http://www.etnosite.ru/).
City officials in the two Russian capitals often have worked closely with these groups. Indeed, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov routinely casts himself as a patron of their activities. And because of that support, at least some of these groups may be able to resist the pressures Tishkov and those behind him may attempt to bring to bear against them.
But in addition to the loss of a communications channel such pressure might bring, there is now yet another reason why any government moves against these groups would be particularly threatening to the future of ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation.
That is President Vladimir Putin’s so-far successful drive to reduce the number of federal subjects by folding smaller non-Russian regions into larger surrounding of neighboring ethnic Russian ones. The most recent of these Moscow victories have led to the dissolution of two Buryat autonomous districts.
In the first of these, the Ust-Orda Autonomous District, the Russian authorities have moved to close down any institutions that might support Buryat identity. Indeed, immediately after the vote to include this district into Irkutsk oblast, officials in the latter assigned a tank lieutenant general to tighten the screws there.
Buryat institutions there have been closed, and many Buryats arrested. None of the promises Moscow and Irkutsk made before the vote have been kept. As a result, the local Buryats have few choices but to keep their heads down and hope for a better future (http://babr.ru/index.php?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=36670).
One analysis of the situation there and in the Agin Buryat Autonomous District that following a referendum a week ago will be folded into Chita oblast concludes that the destruction of Buryat statehood in these two cases has only exacerbated the lack of leaders among Buryats as a nation.
Indeed, in an article for “Politicheskiy Irkutsk,” Dmitriy Verkhoturov argues that the Buryats are not so much a well-articulated nation as a group with weak self-identification and few if any leaders who might be in a position to do something about it (http://babr.ru/index.php?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=36606).
In the past, Verkhoturov continues, Buryats might have looked to the structures of their autonomous regions to solve this problem. But now that these have been destroyed, they will have to look elsewhere, in the first instance to ethnic institutions like those in Moscow and other Russian cities.
Such national-cultural institutions are the least tied to existing bureaucracies and the freest to develop a new generation of leaders, the Irkutsk commentator suggests. But if Tishkov and those who share his view get their way, the Buryats and other smaller non-Russian groups may also lose one of their few possibilities to incubate a new elite.