Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Window on Eurasia: North Caucasus Highlights Problems with Notion of Non-Ethnic Russian Nation, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 31 – The terrorist attacks in Moscow earlier this week and the new upsurge of violence in Daghestan highlight weaknesses not only with the Russian state but also problems with the notion of a non-ethnic Russian national identity, a notion that many have argued is essential if that country is to develop as a modern civil society.
In today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Aleksandra Samarina addresses this latter point via interviews with four leading Moscow scholars, Valery Tishkov who heads the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Gyorgy Mirsky of IMEMO, Dmitry Furman of the Institute of Europe, and Aleksey Malashenko of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center.
Tishkov, who perhaps more than any other individual has been associated with the promotion of the idea of a non-ethnic Russian [‘rossiisky”] identity, acknowledges that there are problems with that identity among many people in the North Caucasus but insists progress is being made (
The process of getting people in the North Caucasus to accept such an identity is proceeding “with great efforts,” Tishkov says, something all the more necessary because that region was “incorporated into the Russian state later than the Volga or the Russian North, Siberia and even the Far East.”
In addition, he says, the North Caucasus “experienced the Caucasus war, the difficult period of the establishment of Soviet power, the deportation of peoples, and the Chechen war.” And consequently, while “the majority” of people in the region consider themselves non-ethnic Russians, there are nonetheless armed people who “cast doubt” on that concept.
Mirsky extended the discussion by observing that even though many people in the North Caucasus and especially in Daghestan use the Russian language as a link to the world, those who leave that region to live and work in Russian cities increasingly feel themselves viewed with distrust because they are Muslims.
“The word ‘Muslim,’ the IMEMO scholar says, “ever more is associated with the term ‘terrorist’” in Western Europe, the United States and Russia. In Russia’s case, he continues, such negative attitudes toward North Caucasians are intensified by the false notion that Gastarbeiters are taking Russian jobs.
This is “dangerous,” he says, because “people who encounter such a situation inevitably translate their feelings to the motherland. And there ever more often the idea arises that the term non-ethnic Russian does not mean anything.” These feelings are fueled by the appearance of attitudes of Russians who want “Russia for the ethnic Russians [“russkiye’].”
The peoples of the North Caucasus, Mirsky says, “do not feel themselves to be ethnic Russians. That is both impossible and unnecessary. And then the term ‘non-ethnic Russian’ turns out to be so nebulous” that they are unable or unwilling to see it as a reasonable substitute for or addition to their own ethnic national identities.
It is difficult to speak about the existence of a non-ethnic Russian nation, although “the idea that there is a single non-ethnic Russian nation, in which are included various peoples and various ethnic groups does exist,” Mirsky adds. But communicating that to ordinary people is “very difficult.”
“For the majority of the population [of the Russian Federation], there is a precise distinction: Russians and in general the Slavs are one thing, and the other people, especially the southern ones, are something quite different.” Muslims feel this and thus have few reasons to re-identify as Moscow wants.
There is an additional reason for that, he says. “Under Yeltsin the term ‘non-ethnic Russian’ was introduced but it was interpreted so that there were both ethnic Russians and non-ethnic Russians. Ethnic Russians were Orthodox and patriots, but non-ethnic Russians were those who took a pro-Western stance and wanted to eliminate Russian uniqueness.”
The Institute of Europe’s Furman points to other problems in the post-Soviet period. When the union republics became countries with the demise of the USSR, he points out, “it turned out that none of the autonomies had the right to leave,” and explaining that to a Chechen or a Tatar was morally “impossible.”
At that time, Moscow was confronted in the North Caucasus by “normal nationalism,” and if [Russia] had really agreed to the independence of Chechnya in 1991-92, this would have been a state. Certainly not a very well organized one to be sure, but step by step it would have proceeded along a more or less human path.”
Instead, by opposing such independence, what Moscow obtained was “a pure formality.” The Chechens say “we are with Russia forever” and formally enter the Federation. But we remain with an extremist underground,” one that provides no basis for negotiations and that can “only be killed.”
But with regard to terms, Furman says, one must begin with the reality that “the North Caucasus is not Russia. Polls show that for ordinary Russians, people of the North Caucasus are more alien than say Ukrainians or Belarusians,” an attitude that is reflected in calls for limiting immigration not from the latter but only with the former and other Muslim areas.
In cultural terms, then, the North Caucasus today is “an absolutely alien territory which it is impossible to integrate [into the Russian Federation] in a genuine way.” That means that the struggle against terrorism will and should continue there for a long time to come. Moscow can restrain and retain the area, Furman concludes, but this will be only “formally.”
Finally, Carnegie’s Malashenko provides an insight into why Moscow is going to find it so difficult to come to terms with this divide. On the one hand, he notes, studying the Caucasus has not been prestigious or highly paid, unlike the study of France, the United States or even the Arab world, and consequently few Russians have done it.
And on the other, the Russian powers that be are so sure that they do not need to understand this part of Russia that in no Russian embassy abroad is there some Russian diplomat “who speaks for example Tatar.” Moscow officialdom is certain it can “conquer” or “modernize” the Caucasus, a reflection of both “laziness” and lack of concern.”

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