Friday, March 16, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Will a Third Moscow Nationalities Ministry Prove the Charm?

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 16 – Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov has called for the reestablishment of a ministry of nationality affairs, but such an institution, in his understanding, would have a very different purpose and play a fundamentally different role than its two predecessors.
After the 1917 revolution, Vladimir Lenin set up a Commisariat of Nationalities (Narkomnats) to structure the relationship between the central government and the assertive non-Russian periphery. Led by Joseph Stalin who later disbanded it, Narkomnats helped to mollify then and subordinate the non-Russian nationalities.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin created a ministry of nationalities affairs to help manage Moscow’s relationship with the again assertive periphery of the country. But Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin disbanded it as part of his general drive to recentralize power in the Russian Federation.
Now, speaking at a roundtable earlier this month organized by the Federation Council’s commission on nationality policy and religious affairs, Mironov argued that it is time for Moscow to reestablish this ministry and adopt a new nationality policy (
Mironov’s deputy on this commission, Vladimir Slutsker, provided some details on what this renewed ministry would focus on. “To speak of nationality policy as a complex of measures for the support of cultures, ethonoses, language programs or the uniqueness of this or that ethnic group,” he said, was “yesterday’s idea.”
Instead, Slutsker continued, Moscow’s nationality policy in the future should be based on the acknowledgement fact that “historically” Russia was a “multi-national land on the territory of which lived dozens and even hundred of different ethoses, representing all the world religions.”
“Before the establishment of the Russian state, on the territory of Russia already existed Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.” And consequently, it is incorrect to view any of them as non-indigenous or “imported.” To do so, he concluded, is “to commit a crude mistake.”
Other speakers at the roundtable echoed the idea that religion is the key to understanding and managing inter-ethnic problems within the Russian Federation. Sergei Gradirovskiy, the director of the Moscow Center for Strategic Research, argued that the declining percentage of ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation is natural.
During the imperial period, he noted, ethnic Russians formed only about half of the population, “and only after the collapse of the USSR” did their share increase up to 82 percent. What is happening now, with higher birthrates among non-Russians and the influx of migrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan, restores the historical pattern.
But because this shift in the ethnic composition of the population involves a shift in the relative share of the followers of different religions, Moscow must focus on religious questions if it is to design and implement a nationality policy with any chance of success.
A third speaker, Farid Asadullin, the deputy chief of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the European Portion of the Russian Federation, agreed on the centrality of religious issues: “The religious factor today plays in the area of inter-ethnic relations a dominating role.”
And he added that the most important religious-nationality question for Moscow at the present time is the relationship between Christianity and Islam. If Moscow is able to find “a modus vivendi” between the two, Asadullin concluded, “then we can by our joint efforts overcome any problems.”
Father Sergei Zvonarov, a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, agreed, but he stressed that people of all faiths need in the future as they have in the past be included “in a voluntary way” in the common Russian linguistic and cultural community.
The notion that religion lies at the basis of nationality in the Russian Federation is something various commentators and academic specialists have argued in the past, but this roundtable at the Federation Council suggests that the idea of dealing with ethnic issues only in combination with religious ones is gaining advocates within the political sphere.
But because of the sensitivity of this issue, because of the number of institutions both in Moscow and elsewhere who would be affected by it, and because of Putin’s current centralizing policies, it is unlikely that a new Narkomnats responsible for both ethnic and religious affairs will emerge anytime soon.

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