Saturday, May 24, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Regions Increasingly Must Deal with Nationality Issues

Paul Goble

Baku, May 25 – Predominantly ethnic Russian regions in the Russian Federation seldom devoted much effort to issues involving ethnic minorities, but immigration, the amalgamation of regions, and increasing activism by non-Russians living there are forcing the regional leaders to wrestle with these questions, especially given Moscow’s failure to set a common policy.
Internal migration and immigration from former Soviet republics has made even the most ethnically Russian regions more non-Russian than they ever were before, a trend that has captured a great deal of attention in places like Moscow and other traditionally Russian cities but much less in predominantly Russian oblasts.
An example of the new attention non-Russians are getting in the latter took place at the end of last week in Moscow oblast, where the Asembly of Peoples of the Moscow Region took place, bringing together 780 representatives of the 120 different ethnic groups who now form part of that area’s population (
Valery Chernov, the oblast’s minister for territorial formations, told Rossiiskaya gazeta on Friday that “there have not been and are not any conflict situations on a nationaloity basis in the oblast,” but that the government nonetheless devotes a great deal of attention to making sure that does not change.
He said that the oblast, although still overwhelmingly ethnically Russian, is very much “a multi-national region,” with more than 40 ethnic autonomies and organizations, all of which were created and are operated by members of their respective communities rather than by government officials.
But he said that regions like his own have to play a special role in dealing with them because of “lacunae” in federal legislation. “It is important,” he said, for the regions “to establish a system for monitoring of developing processes so as to catch any conflict situation before it gets out of hand.”
The governments of Russian regions into which non-Russian autonomies have been folded face an even greater challenge. Few of them have any experience or legislation on the books in this area, and Moscow, having pushed them to combine, has generally failed to provide guidance on what they should do.
The situation in Irkutsk Oblast, into which the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District has been folded, is probably typical, with officials scrambling to come up with their own concept of nationality policy – the federal one is dated – and specific laws and regulations to deal with the new situation (
In an article in Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda last week, Elena Trifonova describes some of the acrobatics they are going through. Officials have come up with a draft concept paper but have not yet worked out all the details, she says, with both Russian and Buryat advocates pushing one way and then another.
Sergei Kozhenkov, who oversees nationality issues for the governor, says that the reigon needs a conceptin “in order to precisely define how the government views naitonalitiy policy. At present, he told the journalist, there is little little “clarity on this question,” despite its importance because “nationality policy in the oblast is part of the national security of the country.”
Arguing that “there is a nationalitiy question in the country although it does not constitute a nationality problem,” Vladimir Bukhantsov, one of the experts who is working on the concept paper, says that it rests on the general idea that “according to the constitution, neither nationality, nor religion, nor race gives someone the right to live by his own laws”
And he suggested that three operational principles that follow from this. First, no one should allow any ethnic group or diaspora to live in isolation from the broader community. Everyone who lives in the oblast is “first of all a citizen of the Russian Federation, then a representative of the regional society, and only third, a representative of a particular nationality.”
Second, he said, “all nationalities must have equal rights and equal responsibilities,” including the Russian. Nationality policy must be about everyone, about the preservation and advancement of culture. Thus, nationality policy must focus on the Russian community in particular rather than neglect it as has been the case earlier.
And third, Bukhantsov continued, the government must support those institutions which support ethnic culture and identity. In the Russian case, he argued, that means the government must support the continued existence of villages which form the foundation of Russian national identity, rather than assuming that propaganda is enough.
Yet another aspect the region is wrestling with is reaching out to diasporas that have their origins on it sterritory. Among them are the 1917 and 1990, Irkutsk diasporas in Australia and New Zealand, and the even older diaspora in Crimea, where there is already an active Landsmannschaft organization for Sibiryaks.
But Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda notes that the oblast may not have the funds to do all of these things: the budget line for “nationality question” issues was cut this year from approximately 10 million rubles (420,000 U.S. dollars) to 2.5 million, at precisely the time that Irkutsk assumed bigger responsibilities.
And a third way in which ethnic minorities are presenting challenges to Russian regions is by their increasing political savvy and activism. Rinat Mageyev, a leader of the Tatar community of St. Petersburg, described to this week how his group is becoming more active (
One of the reasons the community has become more active is because it is simply larger. In 1991, there were only 45,000 Tatars in the northern capital; now, there are 300,000. While they do not have as many organizations as some other ethnic groups, they have a newspaper, a local autonomy, and many social and political activities.
Perhaps most important they have been able to establish close working relation with the city’s administration, Mageyev says, thanks to the “particular popularity” Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev enjoys with top people in the city. And consequently, the local leader continues, the community is able to get much that it wants without public action.
Some of the city’s younger Tatars are being assimilated, he acknowledged, a regrettable fact of life that he said is pushing his group to become even more active and to see greater support from the government in St. Petersburg and from the the one in Kazan, yet another way in which ethnicity is playing an expanded role in traditionally Russian regions.

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