Friday, October 19, 2007

Window on Eurasia: What Kind of Nationalities Ministry Might Putin Create?

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 19 – Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s recent suggestion that the Russian government should re-establish a ministry for nationality affairs not only indicates that there may be growing support for that but also begs the question as to what issues such an agency should be responsible for and what powers it should have.
Indeed, Sergei Markedonov argues in an analysis posted online today, such questions have plagued all Russian efforts to create a nationalities ministry that performs real political tasks and is not limited to a propagandistic, even “folkloric” enterprise (
After the 1917 revolution, Lenin established the Commissariat for Nationality Affairs under Joseph Stalin, but that institution proved both too weak – Stalin paid relatively little attention to it much of the time – and too meddlesome – its operatives presumed to have the right to get involved in all issues where ethnicity was a factor.
As a result, Stalin himself liquidated this institution in 1924, and his Soviet successors did not try to recreate it. (For a useful discussion of the tensions that undermined this institution, see Stephen Blank’s The Sorcerer As Apprentice: Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities, 1917-1924 (Greenwood, 1994).)
But with the end of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to establish first a state committee on nationalities and then in 1994 a ministry wit responsibilities in this area. But neither he nor his colleagues were ever happy with these arrangements and subjected the latter to numerous reorganizations.
Then in October 2001, his successor Vladimir Putin did away with the nationalities ministry entirely – although he did appoint a “minister without portfolio” to oversee policies in this area and to develop a concept paper on what Moscow’s nationality policy should be.
But efforts to reach agreement on that document quickly failed, and Putin’s own commitment to the re-centralization of power first in Moscow and then in the Kremlin and his desire to promote Russian identity political and ethnic effectively blocked the re-establishment of such a ministry.
Recently, however, Putin’s own policies appear to have opened the way for some experiments at the regional level. In one, involving the new Perm kray, a special ministry is being set up to deal with the now subordinate Komi-Permyak district (
And in nother, in the Komi Republic, the government has announced that it will launch a 25-person ministry for nationality affairs at the start of next year in place of the existing department for ethnic affairs with its eight employees within the ministry of culture (
Such efforts and growing concern about inter-ethnic affairs and migration has prompted more senior officials like Luzhkov to raise the issue, either in the hopes of winning political points in this political season or out of the belief, frequently expressed, that “a multi-national country can’t do without a nationalities ministry.”
But Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on ethno-politics, argues that most of these proposals have not been thought through or would lead to the creation of an institution whose primary tasks would be to promote “friendship of the peoples” rather than resolve ethno-national problems.
But that would be a mistake because, as he says, “peoples as a matter of principle cannot become friends, only people and citizens, operating on their own life experience and knowledge can do so.” And because that is the case, any new ministry in this area must not represent a revival of what was done in the past.
Indeed, he continues, it should not be a ministry for nationality affairs at all. Instead, it should be a ministry for nationality policy, whose tasks would include “the coordination, diagnosis, and predicting inter-ethnic relations” in the country, “the development and realization of reforms in federal relations, the development of a state program on migration, and the evaluation of educational programs in the regions.
Were such a ministry with these responsibilities to be created, Markedonov suggests, then he would fully support setting it up, because such a ministry would help to promote two things he argues Russia desperately needs “the de-ethnicization of politics and the formation of a single political nation.”
The Moscow analyst does not however indicate how such an agency could avoid the twin problems of earlier structures – so much power as to be dangerous or so little as to be irrelevant – but Putin’s move into the parliament may mean that he will be only to happy to have a responsible ministry he can use to expand his own power from there.

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