Monday, December 17, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Faces Obstacles to Creating a Civic Nation -- But Dangers If It Doesn’t

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 17 -- In addition to pressure from nationalist groups that want “a Russia for the Russians,” the Kremlin currently faces at least six major obstacles to the realization of its announced plans to create a non-ethnic, super-ethnic Russian political nation, according to a leading Moscow specialist on ethno-politics.
But if the Kremlin fails to overcome them and soon, a leader of the Russian Federation’s rapidly growing Muslim community has warned, the country’s Muslims and other minorities are likely to turn on Vladimir Putin however much support they have given him up to now.
In an essay posted online Friday, Natalia Kharitonova, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Social-Political Processes in the Post-Soviet States at Moscow State University, gives one of the most thoughtful discussions yet of the differences between a “political” nation and an “ethnic” one and the problems Moscow faces in dealing with each.
She notes that an “ethnic” nation gives preference to the state-forming nationality and thus elevates the rights of this community over those of the individual, an arrangement she suggests has been accepted in many of the post-Soviet states, albeit in various degrees of severity (
A “political” nation, in contrast, is one in which the rights of individuals who identify with the country regardless of their ethnic background are paramount. And this kind of nation, Kharitonova says, is the one the current Russian government is committed to creating for the Russian Federation.
But she points out that Moscow faces an enormous range of difficulties, some of them inherited from the tsarist and Soviet pasts, some from the attitudes of ethnic Russians who want to formalize their elevated status, and six others that seldom are discussed but may prove the greatest obstacles of all.
At the end of the tsarist period, the Moscow analyst points out, many writers and officials spoke out against any ethnic particularism or autonomy lest that become the basis for secessionist challenges. Instead, the subjects of the empire were to be united by a single political loyalty to the tsar and his regime.
In Soviet times, the government went even further, she notes. “Having offered autonomous status” to ethnic territories, the Soviet government “attempted and to quite great lengths succeeded in moving along the path of the construction of a Soviet socialist super-nation” and the establishment of “’Soviet citizen’” as the primary identity for all its citizens.
Despite all the problems with that identity, Kharitonova says, its continuing influence among all Russian Federation residents over the age of 25 has led “the current Russian authorities” to try to make “use it for the formation of a civic nation of [non-ethnic] Russians.”
Not surprisingly, however, they have faced difficulties. On the one hand, many ethnic Russians believe that they should have a special and predominant place in the political order of the Russian Federation just as other titular nationalities have assumed in the other post-Soviet states.
And on the other, the Kremlin faces in addition six major obstacles that seldom attract as much attention as the “Russia for the Russians” sloganeering of the nationalists does, but that individually and collectively may pose even more difficulties for the regime in doing what it needs to do given the multi-ethnic nature of Russian society.
Briefly stated -- and Kharitonova provides significantly more details for each -- these include: First, “the construction of a single Soviet people was not completed, thus reducing the ability of the current regime to be able to use it. Many Soviet citizens viewed other narrower identities as far more important.
Second, the view that the state should give primacy to civic rights relative to those of ethnic and religious groups has remained almost entirely “alien” in Russia, thus undercutting what the Kremlin says it wants to do. Third, in many regions, ethnic and religious identities are strengthening rather than declining and thus compete with civic one.
Fourth, the very notion of a civic nation is difficult to apply to Russia because it arose in countries with a tradition of the melting pot, something that Russia did not have at any point in its history. Fifth, the role of ethnic Russians in the history of the state is so enormous that not acknowledging it is offensive to many members of this largest group.
And sixth -- and it is clear from her comments that Kharitonova believes this is the place which offers the greatest chance for a breakthrough, “in Russia today there is lacking a well-articulated national idea, capable of uniting the population of Russia as a single whole and mobilizing it for the achievement of these goals.”
“After the collapse of the USSR,” the Moscow State University scholar says, “the politicization of ethnicity became the … most powerful means of mobilizing society in the process of construction of national statehood on the post-Soviet space.” Other countries have used it, but Russia by virtue of its demography cannot if it is to remain both united and open.
The pressures toward dictatorship are all too obvious. Indeed, they are so obvious that Kharitonova does not even mention them. But the threats to the country’s unity are less so to many, especially after Vladimir Putin’s repeated insistence that the construction of his power vertical has guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.
However, the situation may not be as the Russian president has suggested. In an article in “Medina al’-Islam” published last week, that journal’s editor Damir Mukhetdinov says that Russia’s Muslims are currently united behind Putin and the Russian government but that this happy situation could end quickly.
Mukhetdinov, who is one of the most influential of Russia’s Muslim intellectuals, notes that “the unity of all [non-ethnic] Russians -- the people, the power, and the organs of spiritual power had allowed them to push the country forward” during the first years of the 21st century (
But all that progress, he suggests, could be at risk if “the voices of those calling for a unitary state” and for the recognition of a special position for ethnic Russians as “the state-forming nationality” are not stilled and the policies of Russian officials at all levels are not immunized against their influence.
The rhetoric of many nationalists, he points out, contradicts the Russian Constitution which holds that “We are a multi-national people.” That must be insisted upon, he says because “the national composition of the country is changing daily and in various regions the national and religious majority is different.”
“In certain regions,” the Muslim editor notes, “Buddhists form the majority, and in others, Muslims do.” Arguing that ethnic Russians are the state-forming nationality there or even in the country as a whole, thus is contradictory And in case anyone mistakes just how dangerous this could be, he draws the following analogies:
“The attempts of the Soviet regime to assimilate non-Russian peoples led only to the collapse of the USSR, the 85th anniversary of which we should have been marking in December of this year In post-Soviet Georgia, the struggle with the national self-consciousness of the Abkhaz and Osetians in fact led to the splitting of the country.”
“Happily,” Mukhetdinov concludes, the situation in Russia has not deteriorated to that extent. But if it has not yet done so, the Muslim editor’s words clearly imply, there is a very real risk that it could, especially if the Kremlin retreats from its commitment to creating, despite all the obstacles, a genuine civic nation.

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