Vienna, December 21 – The agreement between the presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia last week that opens the way for refugees from the Prigorodny rayon to return to their homes without any change in republic borders marks a significant break with Stalinist nationality policy, according to a Moscow commentator.
The accord between Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Taymuraz Mamsurov, Sergey Markedonov points out in a commentary posted online today, is already being called “historic” by many but most of those using the term so far do not appear to recognize just how true that is and how many implications that conclusion has (www.politcom.ru/9333.html).
The agreement between the two republic heads not only highlights “the ineffectiveness of federal mediation and the lack of preparation of the central powers that be to anything more than reaction” to events, he continues. It also undermines the fundamental principle of Stalinist nationality policy which continues to dominate post-Soviet Russia.
That principle, “based on the primacy of collective rights and therefore collective responsibilities over civil and humanitarian concerns,” Markedonov continues, was based on “a theoretical vision in correspondence with which an ethnic group is understood as a collective personality with a collective consciousness.”
Given that Stalinist understanding, the Moscow analyst continues, “it is insufficient to punish the guilty who identify themselves with this or that group.” Rather the entire ethnic group must be declared “a collective enemy,” and the group as a whole must be punished through the elimination of its official control of this or that territory.
“Of course,” Markedonov concedes, “primordialism as a discourse was invented not by Comrade Stalin but precisely he converted it into the capstone of Soviet nationality policy.” And as a result, the country was converted into a kind of “communal apartment, populated by ethnoses who were given aspects of legal personhood.”
That of course both placed “a slow-acting mine” under the entire “foundation of the Soviet state,” leading to its destruction, and made it far more difficult for post-Soviet Russia to make the transition “to a contemporary nationality policy,” in which individuals rather than groups would enjoy primacy of rights.
The April 1991 law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples “contained in itself besides general democratic rhetoric, the deeply anti-democratic (and by its spirit Stalinist) principle about ‘territorial rehabilitation,’” the very provision that sparked the conflict between Ingush and Ossetians and so many others.
(The armed conflict between Ingush and Ossetians, as will be recalled, lasted only four days in late 1992, but for many years, Markedonov points out, it “has defined the ethno-political climate” in these two republics, given that it led to nearly 500 dead, more than 40,000 refugees, and property damage estimated at 12 billion rubles in 1992 prices.)
“Instead of the integration of republics, krays and oblasts of the new Russia on a civil basis,” Markedonov argues, “this law promoted the outbreak of conflicts,” something about which “no one should have any illusions” even now because it enshrined the notion that only by restoring ethnic territories could individual rights be protected.
Quite obviously, the longtime analyst of the Caucasus says, “the modernization of the country without the formation of a new nationality policy, oriented toward civil and political identity instead of ‘the fifth point’ [a reference to the Soviet passport line for nationality] and ‘the voice of the blood’ is impossible.”
That is what makes the December 17th accord so important, Markedonov says. With that agreement, “two leaders of the North Caucasus subjects made the first serious step away from Soviet nationality policy” by rejecting the idea of “’an ethnic right’ to land,” according to which any place is regarded as “the exclusive possession of this or that ethnic group.”
“For the first time in the course of the post-Soviet period, not simply in words but in an official document,” he stresses, “the Ingush forced resettled receive the right to return to the place where they had lived,” an arrangement that means “the all-Russian legal norm is placed above regional ethnic arrangements.”
And at the same time, Markedonov continues, with this agreement, “Ingushetia drops its demand for the return to it of the Prigorodny rayon,” a shift in position that Yevkurov has been signaling for some time and one that also has the effect of putting “the rights of man and citizen … above ‘the right of blood.’”
Quite obviously, as their subsequent comments make clear, both leaders took this step for pragmatic reasons rather than principled ones and continue to use language reflecting the older Stalinist paradigm. But it is worth noting on this, the 130th anniversary of Stalin’s birth, these two leaders have taken a major step toward dismantling a major part of his system.