Monday, April 2, 2007

Window on Eurasia: A New Kind of Ethnic Politics Emerges in the Russian Federation

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 2 – Two non-Russian nationalities in the Russian Federation took actions last week that point to the emergence of a new form of ethnic politics in that country, one no longer linked to existing territorial units and far more ready to employ tactics and make alliances than most such groups have in the past.
But if these groups constitute a harbinger of change, the two could hardly be more different. On the one hand are the Pomors, a numerically insignificant community in Arkhangelsk oblast now threatened with extinction in large measure because Moscow refuses to acknowledge that they are a distinct nationality.
And on the other are the Azerbaijanis, a rapidly growing immigrant community in Nizhniy Novogorod whose current 160,000 members are projected to more than treble by 2020 and whose leaders are seeking to transform that group from a marginal diaspora into a full-fledged participant in Russian social and political life.
The exact number of Pomors is unknown. Russian officials in tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet times have refused to count them, arguing that these residents of the northern seaside villages in Arkhangelsk are at most a sub-ethnos of the Russians with no rights to aspire to a separate and distinct identification.
But just as was the case at the dawn of the 20th century, many people who do identify as Pomors today are organizing and last week held a congress in order to give voice to three demands the increasingly self-conscious Pomors want to make (see, March 30, March 19, March 6, and February 28).
First, the Pomors want the Arkhangelsk regional administration to create a Council on the Problems of the Pomors, a group that would represent their interests and advise oblast and central Russian officials on the needs and aspirations of this small community.
Second, they want Moscow to officially recognize their nationality and include it in the all-Russian register of the numerically small peoples of the northern regions of the country. Such a listing would guarantee that the Pomors would receive the kind of fishing and hunting quotas that the other groups in that register now get.
And third, they want their own national-cultural center, “Pomor Rebirth,” included in Russian government negotiations with Moscow ecological activists and foreign firms so that the latter are not allowed to close or destroy the fishing fields that have been the basis of Pomor society for centuries.
The Pomors’ prospects do not appear especially bright. Not only do they face resistance from Russian ethnographers like Valeriy Tishkov who see such their being listed separately as a threat to the numbers of ethnic Russians in the census, but they also face problems with both local scholars and even the regional prosecutor.
The local scholars while sometimes supportive appear to have dragged their feet in cooperating with the Pomors. And the prosecutors have intervened against them to block the second volume of a Pomor encyclopedia because it discussed privatization of property during the 1990s in places where the Pomor people live.
The chances for success by the Azerbaijani community in Nizhniy Novgorod in contrast appear much greater – even though it too must overcome the xenophobia of many ethnic Russians there and the indifference or even outright hostility of officials not only in that oblast but also in the Volga Federal District and Moscow.
Despite these problems, the growing Azerbaijani community in Nizhniy has succeeded in registering its own national cultural autonomy organization, keeping in close touch with Baku, and developing ties with the Tatars and other Turkic and Muslim peoples (
At the end of last week, the regional national cultural autonomy of Azerbaijanis of Nizhniy Novgorod oblast held its first congress. The leader of this group, Zaur Idrisov, said that the Azerbaijanis of Nizhniy must work to transform their community from “a diaspora” into “a full-fledged and significant part of Russian society.”
To that end, he suggested, they must continue to develop their media activities, including the website,, and hard-copy publication, “Al Hayat;” develop ties with closely related Turkic and Muslim nationalities, and work toward placing their own members in the regional legislature and even the Russian Duma.
To the extent they do so, Idrisov said, they will be in a position to defend members of their community from attacks by skinheads and from the indifference or hostility of local and regional officials. And they will be able to restore the position Azeris, then known as the Tatars of the Caucasus, had in the Middle Volga a century ago
The meeting approved a draft resolution ( that echoed all of Idrisov’s suggestions, but unfortunately, the media so far has given little attention either to that document or even to the meeting of the Nizhniy Azerbaijanis last week.
That lack of coverage has already led some Azerbaijani activists to comment publicly that some Russian official “from above” had given the order to ignore what they are doing ( But even those Azerbaijanis who think that remain upbeat about the future.
On the one hand, they say, President Vladimir Putin has repeated committed himself to the idea that the Russian Federation is a “multi-national” and not ethnically unitarian state, a view that the Azerbaijanis hope will trump the very different beliefs of lower-ranking Russian officials.
And on the other, they note, the Tatars, a category that includes both those from the Caucasus and those from the Middle Volga, have traditionally “conducted the ‘Eastern diplomacy’” of the Russian state, something no current or future Russian government can afford to ignore.
Obviously, the Azerbaijanis of Nizhniy Novgorod face many obstacles but their optimistic nationalism, one rooted in their growing numbers and a self-confident belief that demography is destiny, suggests they will pursue an increasingly activist approach in politics to advance their cause.

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