Staunton, October 24 – The disintegration of the Soviet Union left approximately 180 places, many along borders put in place by Stalin, where ethno-national tensions are high and where in approximately 20 cases they have already broken out in violence, according to Vladimir Zorin, a Moscow ethnographer who served as Russia’s last minister for nationality affairs.
In an interview with “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” Zorin, who is now deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology but served as nationalities minister until Vladimir Putin disbanded that agency, outlines why Russians should be concerned about that reality (kp.ru/daily/24578/748669/).
On the one hand, Zorin told the paper’s Galina Sapozhnikova, it is a mistake to become too alarmed by the recent upsurge in ethnic violence. Such violence tends to surge in the summer months, and experts have concluded that there has been “a stabilization in [Russia’s] social-political situation [over the last 10-15 years] including in the area of inter-ethnic relations.”
That is not to say, he continues, that there are no problems with “migrant-ophobia, Caucasus-ophobia and anti-Semitism,” but “these are marginal phenomena” rather than being a matter of “state policy” or reflecting “the point of view of the majority of the population” of the Russian Federation.
But on the other hand, Zorin insists, there is a real basis for concern “because conflicts are the borderlands of the former USSR are not resolved and have acquired a delayed status and can at any moment break out anew,” as events in Kyrgyzstan over the last several months have demonstrated.
Moscow experts, the ethnographer continues, had taken note of “a significant growth in tensions” there already last year and had predicted a disaster which “to one’s great regret has taken place.” One reason the expert community was sure that would happen is because of the cyclical pattern of ethnic conflicts.
“In the 1990s,” Zorin points out, “there was also an inter-ethnic conflict in this region And conflicts of this kind have a tendency to display a cyclical return after 15 to 20 years. A young generation grows up which has experienced terror, denigration and fear, and it wants revenge” – a pattern that is not limited to the Uzbek south of Kyrgyzstan.
Russians are “not indifferent about how the Russian-language population in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Georgia and any other new independent state feels,” Zorin continues, “just as residents of these countries absolutely are not indifferent if Tajiks and Uzbeks are killed [in the Russian Federation]. All this is very interconnected.”
Among “the first-order Russian risks,” the former nationalities minister says, are “the growth of tension on the borders of our countries and especially in the countries of the CIS. Many of these conflict situations were laid down by the national-territorial delimitation carried out” by Stalin, who believed “this ‘cocktail of peoples’ would strengthen the country.”
“The roots of the Osh conflict, the second series of which we observed in May 2010, are to be found there,” Zorin says. He adds that “experts have counted such zones (of various degrees of tension, numbers, and size of territory) are approximately 180.” Not all have exploded by “20 of them have already been realized in various forms, in armed and unarmed conflicts.”
Thus, Zorin argues, the division of the Soviet Union was not only a tragedy as Putin has said but the cutting apart of something living as Mikhail Gorbachev argued. At the same time, however, it was not the Russians who “redrew” the borders, the stability of which had been “the capstone of stability” in post-war Europe.”
He points to the case of Kosovo, where the West recognized border changes, arguing that “if the world goes along the path of the Kosovo variant and begins to support separatism, this could have unpredictable consequences.” But like most Russian commentators, he does not discuss Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at least directly.
In response to a question about the possibility of “solving” such conflicts, Zorin argues that “it is impossible” to return to the status quo ante. Instead, what is “most important is to extinguish the armed stage” of the conflict, a step that he suggests is “a major success” given the difficulty of getting the sides to make a compromise.
Not all potential disputes have to break out into violence, he says, but that can happen “if they will be used by political forces for the resolution of specific ambitious tasks and if the powers that be, acting in an illiterate fashion, do not begin to consider the ethno-political factor in the resolutions which they take.”
“For example,” Zorin says, “everyone knows about the Transdniestria situation. But they forget that in this same Moldova, there was also a Gagauz problem. It has been resolved; a formula has been found. [And] that means it is possible to find other formulas” for other conflicts.
One of the best means, Zorin suggests, is the use of federalism. In the 1990s, Moscow pushed Georgia to become a federation “but [then-President Zviad] Gamsakhurdia did not want to listen to anyone.” And as a result, Russia, “where the most numerous people forms 80 percent of the population, retained a federal system,” but the other states did not create one.
Fears among Russian leaders about new ethnic conflicts are very real, of course. And one indication of that is the comment of Vladislav Surkov, the first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, to a meeting in the Chechen capital of Grozny on Friday (www.interfax.ru/politics/news.asp?id=161634).
In words that recall Winston Churchill’s declarations about the permanence of British rule in India, Surkov said that “everyone must know that the Caucasus was and forever will remain a constituent part of Russia,” something about which he suggested “the leadership of Russia has not the slightest doubt.”