Thursday, August 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Using the ‘Myth of Compatriots Abroad’ for Nation Building At Home, Russian Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 13 -- The Russian government’s frequent comments about compatriots abroad have less to do with the defense of this group however defined than with the building of the Russian nation at home, according to a St. Petersburg scholar who has examined Moscow’s handling of this question in the Baltic countries.
In the current issue of “Neva,” Dmitry Lanko, an instructor on international relations at St. Petersburg State University, argues that the post-Soviet Russian leadership in reaction to a mistaken policy of the Soviet regime has made “compatriots into a national myth” and its policy of defending them into another myth (
That becomes obvious, he says, if one considers that the policy itself “does not have precisely designated goals” or even a clear definition of its “object.” And consequently, “in the final analysis, [Moscow’s] policy in defense of compatriots is more needed by [those] who live in Russia than by the compatriots themselves.”
Lanko begins his 6500-word essay with two observations. On the one hand, he says, nations are not defined by one or another objective characteristic but rather by myths about their origins and goals. And on the other, he continues, the Soviet system failed to create “a Soviet people” because it declared those of its members who went abroad “traitors.”
In the wake of the Soviet collapse, the new Russian leadership “immediately began work toward the formation of national myths,” and for different reasons, both those who came from the old Soviet system and those who had dissented against it agreed on “the importance of national myths” and reached “a complete consensus” on most of them.
In the first post-Soviet decade, people “openly searched for ‘a national idea;’ in the last decade they have ceased to talk about it but in practice nothing has changed,” Lanko says. And he points to the existence of national myths about a common territory, a common language, a common religion and a common “myth about a [national] Golden Age.”
But the St. Petersburg essayist continues, “the myth about the divided nation” and alongside it talk about“compatriots abroad” has taken its place alongside other national myths about a common territory, a common language, a common religion and a common Golden Age.
As was often true in Soviet times and remains so today, “the first to speak out in defense of compatriots abroad were the so-called siloviki” worried about military retirees in the Baltic States. Gradually, however, Moscow focused on the status of “the entire Russian-language population” in that region,” something that promised “political dividends” abroad and at home.
“In principle,” Lanko says, “there is nothing bad about the struggle for the status of the Russian language population in the Baltic region. However,” he continues,” it is far from clear why the Russian elite, struggle for the rights of Russians in the Baltic ignored their situation” elsewhere.
Part of the reason for this was the rise of another Russian “myth,” one that held that “in Estonia and Latvia citizenship is given only to ethnic Estonians and ethnic Latvians and Russians are thereby transformed into non-citizens” who are severely discriminated against. In fact, however, that has never been the case..
Neither Estonia nor Latvia given their aspirations for membership in the European Union and NATO, Lanko says, ever considered tying citizenship to their titular nations and discriminating against everyone else. “In reality,” he continues, “they proceeded much more intelligently.”
First, they gave citizenship automatically to those who had been citizens before 1940. Then, they provided papers for non-citizens that gave them almost all possibilities of citizens without requiring them to seek citizenship. And finally, they offered a system of naturalization for those interested in becoming citizens that was extremely liberal by international standards.
Instead of recognizing this reality, Moscow sought to score propagandistic points, but these fell flat almost everywhere except inside Russia where the government’s claims were believed. Meanwhile, however, Moscow’s approach to what it continues to call compatriots has failed because it has not defined its goals or those to whom the policy is nominally addressed.
There are three basic models that countries can choose from in developing a policy toward compatriots, Lanko says: the American which is based on promoting American culture through professional and other groups, the Israeli which seeks to attract Jews living abroad to return, and the Chinese which actively promotes Chinese communities abroad.
The Russian Federation has sought to pursue all there models at once, a complicated and, because of the lack of resources and understanding, self-defeating approach all the more so because of “the lack in the [Baltic] countries of a Russian diaspora, that is, not simply Russians but Russians united by common values, goals and interests.”
Moscow’s effort to create one has failed for various reasons, Lanko says. On the one hand, widespread corruption among Russian officials has meant that money intended for these communities has gone into the pockets of Russian bureaucrats, something the compatriots clearly see and distance themselves from.
These conflicts within the Russian-language communities are “only the tip of the iceberg,” Lanko continues. There are “far more serious” divisions within those Moscow lumps together not only on the basis of when the particular Russian arrived – before 1940, in
Soviet times, and subsequently -- but also in terms of specific age groups.
(Moscow currently places a great deal of hope in young ethnic Russians who have grown up since the end of Soviet times, but in doing so, Lanko suggests, the Russian powers that be have failed to recognize both that these young people will grow out of their current “maximalist” approaches and that they are better off in an EU country than they would be in Russia.”)
But the problem Moscow faces extend to its confusion of three radically different groups in terms of identity – Russian-language speakers, compatriots, and “simply Russians” – although the St. Petersburg scholar concedes that they do overlap and even “intersect with one another” in their self-identifications.
After surveying the membership of the first two, Lanko turns to the ethnic Russians themselves and points out what is the largest problem of all. “Every nation has its own ‘markers,’” he points out, “by which it separates people into those who are its own and those who are not.”
“In order to be a German, one must have a German father and a German mother. In order to be French, one must be born in France. In order to be an American, one must have an American passport. But what is it that one must have in order to be a Russian? Of course it would be good to have Russian parents, live in Russia and have a Russian passport.”
Such “universally recognized” markers of “Russianness,” however, not only do not exist in Estonia; “they do not exist even in Russia.” And that is why, he suggests, “the myth of the compatriots” almost certainly will continue to play a far larger role inside the borders of the Russian Federation than beyond them, however much Moscow officials suggest otherwise.

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