Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russians Worried Siberians Could Follow the Path of Ukrainians

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 17 – Siberians may follow the path of the Ukrainians and seek independent statehood, some Moscow commentators believe, but whether they do is still an open question, the answer to which depends as much as on the Russians themselves as on those who are now identifying themselves as “Sibiryaki.”

In the latest broadcast of the “Nationality Question” program of “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” the two hosts, Elena Khanga and Dmitry Steshin note that according to some in Siberia, as many as a third of the residents of that region now identify as Siberians and see their future as separate from or even independent of Russia’s (www.kp.ru/daily/25686/890769/).

The two then discuss with their guest, Egor Kholmogorov, the editor of the “Russky obozrevatel” internet journal, whether the growth in Siberian identity represents a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and who is to blame for the apparent increase in such an identity over the last few years.

As Khanga points out, “a segment of the Siberians assert that they are distinctive people and, by distinguishing themselves from other nations, can resolve many social, ecological and other problems. And they themselves can define the future of their region and over time cease to be [only] a source of raw materials for Russia.”

Steshin adds that “Siberia always was set apart from the rest of Russia,” at least at the level of “social consciousness.” Because of the way the region was settled, a unique “Siberian mentality” has emerged -- to which Khanga adds that almost 14 percent of the population of the country could identify as Siberians, “an enormous figure.”

Kholmogorov concedes that there is such a possibility, but he says that he “hope that the greater part of them will never write down this nationality or even find out about such an idea,” lest having taken this first step in nation building they take others much as some of the nations of the former Soviet Union did.

To Khanga’s objection that “nationality is not citizenship” and that if people identify in one way rather than another, there is no harm in that, the “Russky obozrevatel” editor replies that everyone must understand that “in today’s world, there is no other territory” which outsiders view with such greedy aspirations.

He then recalls the statement of one former US secretary of state that “Siberia is too large a country to belong to a single state,” a clear indication in his mind of what the West intends and of the West’s role in promoting this particular national “identity” as a first step to taking Siberia away from Russia.

Steshin then suggests another approach to the problem of Siberian identity. In his view, Russians themselves are to blame both by forcing Siberians to pay excessive prices for tickets to travel to European Russia and by depriving them of the assistance they need both in normal times and during natural disasters like the forest fires of last year.

He adds that the appearance of a Siberian language is “a very serious provocation which touches the depths of the sub-consciousness,” although appended to the article is a comment by the language’s developer that he came up with the idea of such a language as a lark and has been surprised by the interest in it.

According to Kholmogorov, Ukrainian was once invented in much the same way by Mihailo Hurushevsky, and consequently, the Russian commentator argues, the appearance of such a language, however artificial, has the potential to create real problems for the state down the road.

That is especially likely in the Siberian case, Kholmogorov suggests, because Russian identity is no longer highly values and the asymmetric nature of Russian Federalism means that non-Russians have many benefits and powers that ethnic Russians do not, even in places where they are the overwhelming majority.

Consequently, he concludes, what some may now dismiss as a bad joke may prove to be something more and more disturbing if Russians do not wake up to the danger that such an identity represents for their country and for their nation, one that could cost their country even more than did the departure of Ukraine.

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