Thursday, June 28, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Nationality Policy Must Help Russia Be ‘Competitive,’ Senior Official Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 28 – As Moscow officials work to revise the current concept paper on nationality policy, they must ensure that what they do will promote unity, allow for multiplicity, and make the Russian Federation more competitive abroad, according to the senior Russian official responsible for overseeing the effort.
If a commitments to unity and multiplicity have long been features of declared Soviet and Russian nationality policies, the suggestion by Aleksandr Zhuravskiy, head of the department for nationality affairs at the Ministry of Regional Development, that competitiveness be added represents a major innovation.
On the one hand, it appears to be just another nod to President Vladimir Putin’s frequently expressed wish for the Russian Federation to be able to more than hold its own internationally. But on the other hand, such a commitment could threaten support for equitable treatment of all groups, large and small (
And that in turn could threaten Moscow’s ability to control the country’s ethnically diverse population by suggesting to some that the Russian authorities are now quite prepared to trade off equity for greater efficiency, a move that could easily spark even more ethno-political confrontations.
That possibility and the increasing centrality of nationality problems in Russian life make the interview Zhuravskiy gave to the Peoples of Russia news portal especially important, all the more so because he provide clues about maneuvering behind the scenes that may lead to other changes ahead in Moscow’s approach to nationality issues.
At the outset of this interview, Zhuravskiy insisted that Russian officials are not rewriting the 1996 nationalities concept paper but rather revising portions of it in terms of the three principles listed above. And he said that just as in 1996, many of Russia’s regions and republics are writing their own nationality concept papers now.
After the adoption of the 1996 concept paper by the government, officials in 17 federation subjects drafted their own to take into account local conditions that the all-Russian document had either ignored or treated in a way that the local officials felt was inappropriate.
Now, the same process is occurring again. In April, Zhuravskiy noted, Chechnya adopted its own nationality policy concept. In May, Buryatia did. And at present, he continued, the ministry is helping officials in Irkutsk and Arkhangel’sk oblasts, in the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District, and in the Republic of Karelia to do the same.
Such regional concept papers will not undercut the Moscow one, Zhuravskiy insisted. Instead, they will provide the flexibility needed to deal with the country’s enormous range of problems. And even as he described the drafting process, he said that the major question is funding its provisions rather than the provisions themselves.
The regional affairs ministry, Zhuravskiy said, has achieved two major successes in this regard: It secured funding for certain nationality policies including support of the national cultural autonomies (NCAs) in 2007, and it has secured a separate budgetary line in the annual appropriations specified in the 2008-2010 budgets.
Asked about the upsurge of inter-ethnic violence including clashes between Russian nationalists and “people from the Caucasus” last week in Moscow itself, Zhuravskiy argued that such violence was “the result of an entire range of causes” with which his ministry and others are trying to come to grips.
First of all, he said, one must remember that most of the participants are “young people who were formed as personalities under the conditions of the collapse of the USSR, the social-political transformations in society, numerous conflicts on the post-Soviet space, and the efforts of some Western and certain domestic politicians, political scientists, and experts to impose on us a guilt complex about Stalinism, totalitarianism, communism, imperialism, colonialism, and so on.”
All of this effort, he suggested, had only “one goal:” to make it impossible for us to become “a powerful competitive state.” Thus, the need not only for a nationality policy that takes that into account but also for a new youth policy, something the post-Soviet leadership has failed to develop.
Zhuravskiy then mentioned that his department has been tracking media attention to nationality issues not only to learn what is going on but also to be in a position to counter rumors and the kind of coverage of events that could turn a small and entirely manageable problem into a large and threatening one.
He noted than in 1996, there were approximately 10,000 articles in the Russian media on inter-ethnic relations, but in 2006, there were nearly 15 times as many – approximately 148,000. Many of them are useful, but some are problematic. And it is to the latter that his department is devoting the most attention.
The regional affairs ministry official noted that in the wake of the Kondopoga clashes last summer, he and his colleagues quickly recognized that the most important thing officials can do to cope with such outbursts is to ensure prompt and accurate coverage of what is taking place.
Ignoring or playing down the events, he said, does not help. Instead, the absence of news has the effect of elevating the impact of unsubstantiated rumors and of radicals who are able to use the Internet to put out their interpretation, something they have no trouble in doing if no one counters what they say.
Consequently, Zhuravskiy said, his department is urging the opening of government-run press centers whenever and wherever there is a clash in order to provide reliable information, analysis and interpretation to journalists and thus help calm the situation.
And in a final comment, Zhuravskiy noted that his office is currently working with the various NCA structures across the country to help them support their communities. At the present time, he ponted out, there are 17 federal, 175 regional and 371 local NCAs in Russia..
As important as what he did say, what Zhuravskiy did not talk about may be equally important: the future of non-Russian federation subjects and the balancing of the interests of increasingly assertive Russian nationalists who often can count on official sympathy and those of non-Russian groups who sometimes lack precisely that.

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