Friday, June 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Can the People of the Altai Republic Become the ‘Altai People’?

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 5 – In order to boost their numbers in any upcoming census and thus block any attempt by Moscow to amalgamate their federal subject with a neighboring region, the leaders of the Altai Republic are pushing its residents to shift from their narrower ethnic identities to a broader and territorially defined one .
But regardless of whether they succeed or not, their effort to create a supra-ethnic “Altai people” seems certain to become, as participants in a conference there last week argued, extraordinarily important in the future “not only for the Altai Republic but also for Russia as a whole” (
On the one hand, it represents an effort to move expand upon an ethnic identity like the one that some Soviet ideologists discussed in the early 1970s and another some Russian officials now see as the possible basis of a civic Russian nation now, changes that could undermine all national identities, including the ethnic Russian.
But on the other, because such an identity would be linked to a particular territory, the Altai effort could lead to a hardening of regional identities, something that could make it more, not less difficult for Moscow to combine units and that could power the rise of new regional challenges to the center.
Ivan Belekov, the speaker of the republic parliament, organized a scientific-practical conference in Gorno-Altaisk on “The Unity of Ethnic Diversity – the Basis of the Stable Development of the Altai Republic” in order to promote the idea that members of the smallest ethnic minorities there should declare themselves Altais in the next census.
In 2002, only 62,192 of the 207,122 residents of the Altai Republic identified themselves as Altai by nationality, and officials are concerned that if their numbers fall below 50,000, then Moscow “will take the decision to liquidate the Altai Republic as a subject of the Federation” (
If the Telengits, Tubalars, Chelkans, and Kumandins, four Turkic nationalities, which number slightly more than 6,000 total, were to shift and declare themselves to be Altais, then it is almost certain that the Altais would continue to number more than 50,000 people, and the central Russian government would find it difficult to move against the republic.
. Speakers at the conference, however, went far beyond backing that limited goal. Several talked about the history of the development of what they called “the establishment of the new Altai people” through the establishment of a republic, which they argued serves “as the basis for the formation of a single people.”
When the republic was created, various speakers said, “concerns were expressed” that it would serve only the Altais. “But today we see,” they continued, “the republic expresses the interests of all who live on the territory of the Mountainous Altai region.” That is because its “two indigenous state-forming peoples” were the ethnic Russians and the Altais.
That origin has served as the foundation for “Turkic-Slavic unity” within the Altai Republic and as a model of expanded integration between the two cultural groups elsewhere in the Russian Federation, other speakers said, thus providing the kind of natural development which the communist promotion of a single “Soviet people” did not allow.
Many of the members of the numerically small nationalities, several of their leaders pointed out, enjoy special benefits and are reluctant to give them up, but other participants at the Gorno-Altaisk meeting pointed out that if divisions within the Altai people continue, “the interests of the republic” and all its residents could be sacrificed.
“One fine day,” one speaker said, “we could find ourselves aliens on our own land. If suddenly the Altai people as a result of divisions also becomes a numerically small indigenous people, then in the best case, we will be able to pretend to the status of an autonomous district” within an ethnically different milieu.
Other participants focused on the question of ethnonyms. On many occasions, they noted, people have changed them because they were unhappy with what others called them. Thus the Eskimos now call themselves Inuit and are called that by others. And consequently, there is nothing wrong or inappropriate with the ethnonym Altais.
The residents of the republic should look to become “a single Altai people with its sub-ethnoses,” all the more so since all the Turkic groups speak dialects of “the contemporary Altai language,” and because they have a common interest rather than a competitive one in controlling the use of natural resources there.
In its resolutions, the conference concluded that “the ethnogenesis of the Altai people is continuing,” a development the participants insisted would be reflected in the results of the upcoming census and would work “for the common interests of the entire multi-national people” of the Altai Republic.

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