Saturday, March 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Federal Subjects Define Their Own Nationality Policies

Paul Goble

Baku, March 1 – Because Moscow has not been able to agree on a new nationality policy concept for more than a decade, ever more of the Russian Federation’s regions and republics are adopting their own, a trend that could put the Kremlin’s pursuit of a common legal space for the entire country and possibly a great deal more at risk.
Some of the regions are taking this step because they have been combined with a non-Russian subject -- such as Irkutsk, Transbaikal, and Arkhangelsk – but many – like Krasnoyarsk and Chuvashia – are doing so because the Russian government has failed to update the 1996 concept paper despite intense discussion about a new one since 2005.
The discussions, Vostochno-Sibrskaya Pravda reported yesterday, are often “stormy” not only because the non-Russians see such documents as their best chance to defend their rights but also because many ethnic Russians are insisting that they become the subject of “nationality” policy (
In the past, “nationality” policies concerned only non-Russian minorities, something that members of those communities often felt discriminated against them but that many ethnic Russians believed gave greater privileges to other groups than to themselves, “the state-forming nation.”
Indeed, in the course of the debates in Irkutsk, the paper there reports, one Russian deputy invoked the ideas of émigré nationalist theoretician Ivan Il’in to make the case that Russia’s most important nationality question is the Russian one rather than that of some minority group.
One of the scholars who helped prepare the Irkutsk nationality policy draft, Vladimir Bukhantsov, made a slightly different argument but one that could cast an even larger shadow over the entire country. “Our regional community,” he said, “has its own systematic signs, which say that we are part of the Russian Federation.”
And consequently, each region, including Irkutsk, needs “a special concept. The nationality question is very important.” There are interethnic and interreligious issues that need to be addressed, and in each region, they are different. And people everywhere have to acknowledge that they have ethnic and religious problems.
Such an argument is on its face entirely reasonable, but at the same time and in a most fundamental way, it poses a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to establish a “power vertical” and a common homogenous legal space for the country as a whole.
Indeed, in Daghestan yesterday, the local parliament adopted a program on the development of nationality relations in that most multi-ethnic republic based not on Putin’s recent statements but rather on Makhachkala’s own 1993 concept paper on ethnic issue (
And many of the numerically small peoples of the North and Far East have pushed through both concept papers and local laws that reflect local needs but are often quite different from what Moscow officials have suggested. (On this, see the file of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North at
Many analysts in Moscow and the West are likely to dismiss these actions as unimportant, one more indication that for the current regime in Moscow, nationality issues are of such minor significance that the regions can be allowed to debate them and come up with their own plans.
But such a view is almost certainly a mistake. Russia’s regions, like the Soviet union republics before them, have only a limited range of issues they can debate and act upon, and as these nationality discussions suggest, they are quite prepared to exploit the opportunities they have, possibly laying the foundation for larger claims in the future.

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