Staunton, July 28 – Both aspects of Russia’s “nationality problem” – the country’s relationship with the outside world and the relations among ethnic communities within its borders – remain unsolved and remain defining factors of Moscow’s policies, according to a leading Russian commentator.
In an essay posted on the Grani.ru portal yesterday, Yevgeny Ikhlov argues that the first, often not considered “a nationality problem” may be the more important. Indeed, he says, “the dilemma of the last five centuries of Russian statehood” has been about the choice between two very different definitions of the country (grani.ru/blogs/free/entries/180114.html).
On the one hand, Russia can be “a universal messianic empire” pursuing “a special path.” Or the other hand, Russia can become “an equal partner with other former parts of the Russian empire and a junior partner and student of the European civilizational dominant of the German-Romance world.”
Efforts to avoid a clear choice and to “recombine these elements,” Ikhlov says, have produced “unstable” situations. “The accelerated Europeanization of the empire under the last Romanovs and the Europeanization of the USSR under Gorbachev: both contributed to the disintegration of the country.
“The simple cause” of that outcome, the Grani writer says, “every people (every national elite) of the empire considered that it would be able to better Europeanize itself on its own.” Meanwhile, “a national state which has chosen ‘a special path’ and refuses to take part in the civilizational fields of the next order quickly is converted into a historical preserve.”
Boris Yeltsin, the commentator continues, to create “under the form of the CIS and the Russian Federation a liberal-imperial ‘’matryoshka’ arrangement.” But “it turned out that ‘the Russian democratic’ model did not have any attractiveness as a cultural, social, or political ideological model.”
Indeed, Ikhlov continues, this system held out as long as it did “only on the basis of economic preferences” both to CIS countries and to the republics within Russia, by suppression of separatists (Chechens) and by the complete unleashing of the hands of the republic-level ethnocracies.”
After Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin’s “’sovereign democracy’ became an attempt to restore the model of ‘a special path’ – with paternalism and a nationalist-clerical alternative to European democracy.” That approach initially won support from many Russians, but “the harsh economic egotism and the puffed up imperial rhetoric drove away from Russia most of its neighbors.”
Now, Ikhlov says, the modernization that the Kremlin is promising “for the second time over the last quarter century has begun to destroy the conception of ‘a special path’ for Russia.” And as a result, the nationality question in both its aspects is rapidly becoming “the most important one” for the country.
All political forces from left to right “understand” the importance of these questions, the Grani analyst says, but “they do not want to bring it up for open discussion because they understand its explosive nature” and because almost any idea has the potential to alienate a major part of the electorate.
And that electorate is deeply “divided,” Ikhlov continues. “On the one hand, it wants to preserve a multi-national power or even return, at least in part to the USSR; and on the other, it wants that its people be the topmost (in the entire country or in a ‘titular’ republic) without particular reflects on how to convince the rest to put up with this.”
Indeed, he says, the only political forces that “allow themselves to show consistency” on the nationality question are “the outsiders.” And only those on the extreme nationalist right are prepared to lay out their views on the nature of the Russia they would like to create if they came to power.
Some of them would like to establish a unitary state “with ethnic Bantustans (primarily for Muslims), while other Russian nationalists of this trend would like to exclude “from the future Russian state non-Russian territories with the obligatory Russification of those who want to remain.”
These nationalists understand that “only a national catastrophe – the collapse of the Russian Federation of chaos after the fall of a regime of a fascist type could bring them to power.” Russian nationalists on the left, he says, “prefer only the Stalinist variant of the solution of the national question.”
“Left internationalists” and “liberal internationalists,” Ikhlov continues, are an ever smaller group. “And the more they display a principled position, the less will be their chances in elections.” That is because their support for equal rights can be portrayed by their opponents as support for despised minorities such as Muslims.
All these groups, Ikhlov argues, must come to terms with the reality that “the Russian Federation is the heart of a gigantic continental empire and not simply an enormous space” and that it includes within its borders “various ethnic communities and religious groups” who see themselves as potentially the basis for statehood.
“These potential states,” he writes, “can perfectly well be seen as countries or lands because their populations have a distinctive ethno-cultural uniqueness, an autonomous system of social connections, and historically are connected with a definite geographic region.”
Consequently, “any administrative unifying projects are utopian because it is difficult to explain to the peoples of these lands that everything is being changed and from now on they are subjects of a single unitary country and they can retain their nationality [only] for home and family and also for folklore circles.”
That is all the more so because many of the non-Russians know that it is from their territory that produces the basis for Russia to be “an energy superpower,” because they have seen “with their own eyes” the disintegration of the Russian empire twice, and because they have watched Russian power decline.
Within the territory of the Russian Federation, there are a number of “alternative variants of state development” which various groups are interested in. Ikhlov lists six of them. Under “favorable historical conditions,” they and others could be realized, especially if Moscow cannot provide any “supranational” idea to unify them.
In the absence of such an idea, ethnic identity will win out because it doesn’t require explanation, Ikhlov continues. At the same time, “a multi-national state can exist in a sufficiently stable fashion when this is an empire based on civilizational community and uniqueness.”
But such empires “inevitably fall apart as soon as the imperial center ceases to be the exclusive ‘portal’ for guaranteeing access” to a higher civilization “and integration into the all-imperial establishment (conversion into ‘mankurts’) is the single variant of significant social mobility.”
Individual countries, like Switzerland, “which consist of several national communities” can also “be stable if their peoples have a positive experience of joint inter-ethnic partnership and the factors which promote unification are more powerful than those which promote divisions.”
But unless Moscow changes course, “inertial political development will inevitably lead to the deconstruction of the Russian Federation.” At present, “the only thing that can preserve Russia is the promotion of a sense of a community of fate” among its peoples, either as a result of attack or a revolt against the powers that be.
“The dreams of various segments of the opposition about Stalin, Hitler, Stolypin and Alexander II, the organizer of the genocide of the peoples of the North Caucasus will not unify” the population. And everyone must recognize that “three centuries of the Russian imperial tradition have exhausted itself completely.”
According to Ikhlov, “Russia can acquire stability either as a civic nation or as an ethno-confessional Rus.” (But if the latter, the country will lose the Caucasus and Siberia, the Grani analyst says.) One thing that cannot be at any point in the future is “a civic nation consisting of a nation of slaves.”
Consequently, Ikhlov concludes, “only a strong movement in defense of democratic and humanistic values will give the peoples of Russia the chance to preserve the state by acquiring a unity based on hope in place of the present unity based on fear.”