Vienna, March 19 – Even as the Russian government proclaims “a new era” in relations with Kyiv thanks to the election of “pro-Russian” Viktor Yanukovich and even as the new Ukrainian president announces plans to build a bridge linking Crimea and Kuban, Moscow is seeking to suppress the Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians in Russia.
These various actions may seem contradictory to some, but in fact, they reflect a deeper and longstanding set of Russian attitudes, one that many in the West are loathe to admit or even share: the current Russian leadership and those in neighboring countries it can put pressure on do not view Ukrainians as a separate nation worthy of a separate state.
After the Soviet Union came apart, there were 11.4 million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, something Moscow worked hard to ensure that the entire world knew and that the Russian government insisted the international community demand that Russian-language schools there be kept open.
But at the same time, few people paid much attention to the equally important reality that there were three to five million ethnic Ukrainians living in the Russian Federation, for whom there were no Ukrainian-language schools or other native-language institutions and who even faced loss of work in the early 1990s if they sought to acquire Ukrainian citizenship.
Although they received little support from Kyiv and none from the international community, the ethnic Ukrainians in the Russian Federation took advantage of the freedoms of the 1990s to organize themselves not only in the heavily Ukrainian “Green Triangle” (“Zelenyi klin”) in the Far East but also in major industrial centers.
By 1998, there were four ethnic Ukrainian national cultural autonomy organizations in the Russian Federation, and they came together to form the Federation of National Cultural Autonomies of Ukrainians (FNCAU) in the Russian Federation, a group that for the last 12 years has sought to protect their individual and collective rights under the Russian Constitution.
If Moscow often points to the existence of national cultural autonomy organizations of some very small ethnic groups as evidence of Russian support for nationalities, the central Russian powers that be have never been especially happy about NCAs representing larger groups or those uniting the nationalities of neighboring countries.
In mid-2009, Glavred’s Aleksandr Mikhelson reported yesterday, the government of Vladimir Putin signaled that it intended to shut down the FNCAU. Some Ukrainians expected that Moscow would reverse course following Yanukovich’s election, but instead, the Russian powers that be has “not slowed down” (glavred.info/archive/2010/03/18/140801-6.html).
Mikhelson documents Moscow’s persecution of the FNCAU over the last year. As a result of Russian government-required re-registration procedures, three of the nine regional organizations of the FNCAU were “excluded from the register of public organizations,” something one (in Krasnoyarsk) has now succeeded in overturning in court.
Because of these legal travails -- which exacerbated the autonomy’s financial situation -- the FNCAU was not able to hold a congress in 2009 and elect a new leadership, even though such actions were required by the organization’s own statute. And as soon as the old leadership’s term expired, Russian officials invoked that to move against the group as a whole.
But Moscow’s complaints against the group have become more hyperbolic in recent months. On the one hand, Russian officials now complain that the group should be banned because it continues to have on its official seal the words, “the Ukrainians of Russia,” rather just the FNCAU.
And on the other, in early February of this year, the Russian justice ministry publicized a letter from a Moscow resident who demanded that the powers that be “take measures” against the FNCAU because its continued operation represented in his words “a threat to Russian statehood” because it is promoting “separatism.”
Neither the author nor the justice ministry provided any evidence, but Russian officials don’t think any is needed, believing that “the Ukrainians of Russia don’t need Ukrainian language and culture” (www.glavred.info/archive/2009/04/29/104002-17.html), Mikhelson notes, whatever they say for international consumption.
Hearings on the fate of the FNCAU are scheduled to take place at the end of this month, with the organization itself contesting what it says is the Russian justice ministry’s illegal action. So far, Mikhelson says, the Ukrainian government has not taken a position on this or joined the suit, a failure that may create political problems in Kyiv.
Members of the opposition, he says, are watching what Yanukovich will do. And at least one deputy in the Rada is calling for that body’s foreign affairs committee to hold a hearing on what the Russian powers that be are trying to do, clearing hoping to force the new Ukrainian government to act lest it give more credence to charges that it is “unpatriotic.”