Friday, September 25, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Effort to Exploit Russian Nationalist ‘Brand’ Likely to Backfire with both Russians and Non-Russians

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 25 – The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi has announced plans to hold a “Russian March” on November 4 in order to put a different ideological face on Russian nationalism than that which xenophobic groups like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) have given such events in past years.
But instead of co-opting the Russian nationalist “brand” as they say they hope, the Nashi may provoke more nationalism, having announced that in contrast to their opponents, they consider all citizens of the Russian Federation to be Russians, using the word that refers to them as members of an ethnic community rather than the one that defines them politically.
And that in turn carries with it too risks. On the one hand, it could lead many of the more radical Russian nationalists that Nashi says it opposes to conclude that the Russian government is on their side and thus expand their campaign of violence against ethnic minorities in the expectation that the government won’t punish the Russian nationalists.
And on the other, it will certainly offend those inside the Russian Federation who are not ethnically Russian, leading them to conclude that the regime is lining against them rather than including them as the Nashi leadership says it is trying to do and quite possibly leading to an increase in radical nationalism among them as well.
On the portal, Moscow analyst Olga Mefodyeva says’ project,” and the Nashi themselves insist that “now ‘the Russian March’ will not be a symbol of oppression on an ethno-national basis but a symbol of the unification of the entire Russian people.” But she continues, that may not be the way it will work out (
That is because, Mefodyeva continues, “it is hardly likely that the word ‘Russian’ [russkiy] will unite under its name the numerous peoples of Russia,” most of whom accept the political term “rossiiskiy” but are extremely sensitive to any denigration of their own ethnic dignity as members of separate nations.
“In all probability,” she says, the Kremlin simply wanted to use the Nashi to “kill two birds with one stone” – “to attempt to use the noble idea of nation building and [at the same time to] ‘play’ on nationalist complexes earlier used by marginal movements but which have not lost their significance for a large part of the [non-ethnic] Russian people.
Nashi leaders have said as much. One of them, Ekaterina Guseva, told “Kommersant” that “we want to take away this name from the nationalists because for them a[n ethnic] Russia is someone who had eyes and nose of a definite shape. For us, [ethnic] Russians are all those who have citizenship in the Russian Federation” (
“It is quite curious,” Mefodyeva points out, “how on the basis of a deeply ethnic category, the Nashi will assemble to create an all-civic understanding among the [non-ethnic] Russian population” even as they attempt to distract attention from DPNI and other groups that are still planning to hold their march on November 4.
Some in Nashi may be confused about the distinction between “russkiy” and “rossiiskiy,” but the Kremlin leaders behind them are quite aware of the difference, and their apparent approval of what the Nashi group is saying and planning to do thus raises some disturbing questions about the powers that be in Moscow.
On Monday, Vladislav Surkov, deputy chief of the Presidential Administration, told the Nashi leadership that “you are the advance militant detachment of our political system.” The “transformation” of the Russian street is critical for Russia’s future, he continued, noting how “delighted” he was with Nashi plans to seize control of the Russian March brand
Nashi leaders say they intend to assemble “no less than 20,000 ‘[ethnic] Russians’ of various nationalities” for their “Russian March,” a gathering that will both have a more prominent venue and almost certainly more media coverage given the organization’s links to the powers that be.
But that very prominence will raise even more questions in the minds of Russians, Mefodyeva suggests. The Kremlin’s “nation building” project which initially had set “civic identities above ethnic ones” because the former allow for “the unification of the population of a multi-national or mono-ethnic state under generally shared views,” is clearly facing difficulties.
Given that, “it is logical to presuppose, the analyst says, “that the word ‘[ethnic] Russian is hardly equally acceptable” as a self-designator and source of value for “’the proud grandson of Slavs, and Finns, and now wild Tungus, and the Kalmyk friend of the steppes.”
Forgetting that reality, she concludes, in the Kremlin’s desire to exploit a “brand” that the DPNI and “marginal” nationalists have been playing with could easily make the situation, creating “a dangerously explosive mix,” one that could play a role in the Russian Federation like “great power chauvinism” did in the case of the Russian Empire a century ago.

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