Baku, March 10 – President Vladimir Putin’s statement on Saturday that his successor Dmitry Medvedev is just as much “a Russian nationalist” as he is has attracted widespread attention in the international media as an indication that no Western leader should expect Moscow to back away from its current hardball defense of its interests.
But Putin’s comment and especially his use of “russkiy,” the Russian word for “ethnic Russian” rather than the non-ethnic political one, “rossiiskiy,” as he usually has, may prove more explosive domestically than internationally, given that Western leaders can be counted upon to play down this latest indication of Moscow’s new toughness.
For Russian nationalists and especially xenophobic skinhead groups, Putin’s remark is likely to be read as yet another indication of the Kremlin’s support for the notion of “Russia for the Russians,” a slogan many Russians see as justifying a repressive approach toward immigrants and other non-Russian groups.
And for the quarter of the population of the Russian Federation that is not ethnically Russian, Putin’s words almost certainly will be understood not only as another indication that Moscow views them as less than first-class citizens but as the occasion for mobilizing their own peoples to defend their rights.
Answering questions at a Novo-Ogaryevo press conference following his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the current Russian president said: “You know, I will permit myself only one comment. Of course, I am long accustomed” to being labeled “a former agent of the KGB with whom it is difficult to talk.”
“But,” Putin continued, “I want to tell you the following: Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev will not have to put up with that and thus will be able to display his liberal views, but he is no less, in the good sense of the word, a Russian [russkiy] nationalist than I am.”
Consequently, he concluded, “I do not think that our partners will find him easier to deal with. In any case, this is someone who is patriotically inclined and will most actively advance the interests of the Russian Federation in the international arena”
Given both the context and the thrust of the current Russian president’s remarks, it is not unreasonable to interpret them primarily in terms of their implications for the future of Moscow’s relationships with the leaders of other countries rather than with regard to their domestic impact.
But that is almost certainly a mistake. On the one hand, Putin’s comments play to the increasingly chauvinist attitudes of many Russians who believe that Moscow should use its economic, military and political clout to throw its weight around rather than seek to cooperate with others.
And on the other -- and this seems likely to be the more important consequence -- his use of the ethnic term “russkiy” rather than the political one “rossiiskiy” threatens to further divide ethnic Russians, who form approximately 75 percent of that country’s population, from non-Russian nations, who make up the rest.
Former President Boris Yeltsin was very careful to use the term “rossiiskiy” in talking about the country he helped to create, something Russian nationalists of both the left and the right have never forgiven him for. Putin has been less careful in that regard, clearly with an eye to winning the support of those who hate his predecessor.
On earlier occasions, Putin’s straying from what is the Constitutional and legal definition of the population of the “Rossiiskaya Federatsia” appears to have been the product in the first instance of his often remarked-upon tendency to employ crude language especially when speaking about the Chechens and “people from the Caucasus.”
But the current Russian president’s use of the term “russkiy” in this context is likely to be read by ethnic Russians and non-Russians alike not simply as a warning to the West about Moscow’s actions in the future but as yet another attempt by Putin to place specific limits on his successor’s freedom of action at home as well as abroad.
If that reading is correct – and both the results of a new poll released last week (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/9786.html) and the way one nationalist site has highlighted Putin’s remarks (www.apn.ru/news/article19410.htm) suggest it may be – Medvedev could face more problems domestically than Putin has.