Vienna, June 10 – Some in a new club consisting of the non-Russian members of the Social Chamber are thinking about transforming it into a Nationalities Chamber, a step that would certainly attract more attention to ethnic issues in that country but one that the Russian government might use to reduce still further the representation of nationalities in other bodies.
Yesterday, the press service of the Russian Social Chamber announced the first meeting of that body’s Club of Nationalities, a group Nikolai Svanidze, chairman of the chamber’s commission on inter-ethnic relations, said will allow its members to attract greater attention to their ideas (www.oprf.ru/newsblock/news/2494/chamber_news?returnto=0&n=1).
Svanidze stressed that the club “is an absolutely independent discussion space for current problems of nationality policy,” a description that is likely to lead many to conclude that it is just another talk shop. But the comments of several other participants indicate that it could prove important in both positive and negative ways in the future.
Ara Abramyan, a Social Chamber member who is also president of the Union of Armenians of Russia, suggested that future “interrelationships among peoples” of the Russian Federation are likely to depend on how well the members of this club perform their task of ensuring that the authorities focus on nationality problems.
Meanwhile, Pavel Sulyandziga, a Social Chamber member who is the vice president of the Association of the Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East, went even further. He suggested that the club could help make up for the absence of a sufficient number of government institutions involved with nationalities issues.
In contemporary Russia, he argued, there simply are not enough such structures, and “as a result, there is no one to carry out nationality policy.” A single department in the Ministry of Regional Affairs is “obviously insufficient,” and consequently, the new club can serve to spark interest in creating other bodies.
Perhaps the most radical idea to come out of yesterday’s meeting was offered by Valery Engel, a Social Chamber member who is vice president of the Federation of the Jewish National-Cultural Autonomy of the Russian Federation. He said that he “does not exclude the possibility that the Nationalities Club will ‘grow into a Nationalities Chamber.’”
Such an institution could play a positive role by increasing the attention Moscow leaders give to ethnic issues and by providing a forum for representatives of Russia’s non-Russian peoples. But many may oppose a move in that direction, fearful that some in Moscow might use its existence as a justification for freezing them out of other key institutions.
Consequently, both Engel and others have decided to focus on other more pressing issues and to deal with them gradually and avoid any dramatic shifts. Engel for his part said that citizens of the Russian Federation need to identify first of all with the state and only after that with a particular nation.
That would constitute a major change. “If I stop any of our citizens on the street and ask ‘who are you?’ most will likely answer ‘I am a Russian’ or ‘I am an Armenian’ or ‘I am a Jew’ or a member of some other nation. Few will say that they are [civic] ‘Russians,’ even though that is precisely the identification he argued the country needs.
And for his part, Genrikh Martens, a Social Chamber member who heads the International Union of German Culture, said that the new club should proceed “Schritt fur Schritt” [German for “step by step”] and should begin by sending out a notice to all the ethnic organizations in the country asking for their ideas on the direction the club should move.