Thursday, May 5, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russian Nationalist Attitudes Product of Corruption, Absence of Democracy and Stagnation, Ethnographer Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 5 – Widespread corruption, the lack of democracy, and a decline in social mobility are behind the rise of Russian nationalist attitudes rather than any hostility to immigrants on ethnic grounds, according to a Russian ethnographer, who adds Russians are especially angry because they feel non-Russians currently have more resources than they do.

In an interview to the portal, Igor Savin, an ethnographer at the Center fo rhte Study of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Ural-Volga Region of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, lays out his arguments in detail on each of these points (

Challenged to explain survey findings that suggest younger Russians are sympathetic to the anti-immigrant attitudes of the participants at the Manezh Square protest in December, Savin argues that “these statistics do not speak aobut a growth of xenophobia” among Russians toward all groups but rather “only about the growth of dissatisfaction with ‘Caucasians.’”

On the one hand, he argues, the survey involved not just ethnic Russians but “representatives of other nationalities as well,” including the Tatars. And on the other, it found that people were not put off by the Caucasians because of the way they look or their culture, the two most usual causes of xenophobia.

Instead, the ethnographer said, “it turned out that [residents of the Russian Federation] did not like precisely the behavior of ‘the Caucasians,’ the way in which they conducted themselves during the time they spend earning money and during their off hours,” a response that he suggested was “a natural reaction which arises given the lack of a serious integration policy.”

“This is [thus] not a question of dislike, which has suddenly arisen among the Caucasians, ethnic Russians, Tatars and whomever else. This is an issue of the lack of agreement on a straqtegy of social survival,” where the indigenous people choose one and the arrivals choose another.

In the recent past, Savin points out, “those who traditionally lived in the central part of Russia, the national majority had their own ‘working’ models of social success based either on personal entrepreneurialism or on the obtaining of good educaziton or on the inclusion in various structures.”

Ethnic Russians therefore “did not play ‘the national card’” because “this was considered a marginal measures which was used [only] by representatives of national minorities,” who it was assumed “would use such means because they did not have equal access to others. But now the situation has changed.

“As before the national minorities use these mechanisms, but the government institutions which earlier secured the socialization of the majority (the Russians) have ceased to work. Nothing depends on the level of your education, competence or on your individualisty today. Today the mechanisms that matter are ‘personal ties,’ clientalism, and tribalism.”

Because those are the only reliable resources at the present time, Savin says, ethnic Russians simply want to use them as well, and it is that desire which explains the growth in support for the idea of “’Russia for the Russians’” rather than hostility to other ethnic or religious groups.

“For representatives of national minorities, the use of [such] ethnic resources is an every day affair. But for ethnic Russians, it is a manifesto. Rephrasing the well-known expression, it is possible to say that ‘the nation is like health; if one is talking about it, then that means that it doesn’t exist.’”

Many people assumed that “the market would put everyone in his place,” Savin continues, “but this is a simplification.” More is needed, and “everything that is taking place now – the growth of hatred to migrants, degradation, and the destruction of social institutions – is the result of corruption and the exclusion of civic organizations from decision making.”

Some people say, the ethnographer insists, that Russia needs migrants, “but illegal migrants do not pay social taxes – or more precisely their employers do not pay them.” How useful are migrants to ordinary Russians, who also suffer because migrants push down wages even as they benefit from social services they aren’t paying for.

Corruption explains all this because the problem is not with the migrants but with the people who employ them, Savin says, and with the failure of the powers that be to integrate people and “force their integration” by coming up with “adaptation mechanisms” and trying to make “from the migrants ‘people just like us.’”

Russians need to understand this, to recognize with whom the problems lie, the oligarchs and the powers rather than with the immigrants, and to understand that “corruption, the absence of social escalators, and the inequality of citizens before the law in Russia” is holding everyone back, pointing toward a disaster unless more Russians understand and act on this reality.

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