Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Multi-Cultural Regionalism Emerges as New Player in Russian Politics

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 21 – Regional organizations in some parts of the Russian Federation are becoming multi-cultural, a development that strengthens both the communities and the regions of which they are a part but one that undercuts Moscow’s long-held view that there is a sharp distinction between non-Russian republics and predominantly ethnic Russian regions.,
That development, which regional theorist Vadim Shtepa describes in an article featured on the SPN-St. Petersburg site, has three major consequences. First, it promotes the modernization of all the groups involved, forcing many of them to shift from a defense of their national pasts to a search for a common future (
Second, it strengthens the regions as a whole and the individual groups by creating a larger community to lobby for common interests and preventing government officials from playing divide and rule politics, actions that often exacerbate rather than help overcome ethnic suspicions.
And third, as Shtepa points out, this new kind of regionalism opens the way to expanded cooperation across what are ever less important internal and international borders without directly challenging the authority of the Russian state in much the same way that the Euro-regions work within the European Union.
Shtepa bases his conclusions about what he calls “the new paradigm of regionalism” on an examination of the activities of the “Young Karelia” (Nuori Karjala) organization. As that group’s website suggests, it is open to “all people independently of their nationality, political affiliation or religious faith (
When this group was created 15 years ago, it largely united members of ethnic minorities who were interested in preserving their national pasts. But now it involves people from all of the nationalities in Karelia, including ethnic Russians and especially members of Russian subgroups in projecting ethnic interests into the future through popular culture.
This evolution, he argues, is having profound consequences not only on the smaller ethnic groups, many of which are now flourishing, but also on Russians who had been convinced that there must either be a strong “centralist ‘power vertical’ or otherwise a complete breakdown will occur.”
Instead, these can be “dialectically combined,” with the state remaining strong but with multi-cultural regions growing in strength as well. European regionalists, Shtepa argues, are showing the way. They are not advocates of some sort of ‘separatism’ but rather help to reduce the importance of borders and thus promote integration.
“This reduction in the importance of borders also extends into the sphere of ethno-cultural interrelationships,” Shtepa insists, arguing that “contemporary regionalism is in principle multi-cultural and does not have anything in common with closed mono-ethnic reservations” that many Moscow commentators think it represents.
And one of the reasons why this new regionalism has taken off is that it works to the benefit of all groups, including the dominant Russians. Shtepa quoted the observation of Vyacheslav Agapitov, the head of the Russian North organization: In Karelia, the latter said, Russian sub-ethnic groups like the Pomors gain just like all the non-Russian groups.
In Shtepa’s telling, this new kind of regionalism is attracting ever more recruits, but many in Moscow will work to oppose it: Such local cooperation among groups not only opens the way to greater democracy at the grass roots but as was already noted makes it more difficult for the center to play one group off against the other.
Moreover, the way in which such regionalism challenges both internal and international borders almost certainly will be read by many in Moscow as a harbinger of secession, whatever those involved in it say or do. And finally, Russian nationalists will be upset because such cooperation highlights the divisions within the Russian nation, divisions they typically deny.
That may help to explain the problems that the EU’s Karelian Euro-region faced a decade ago and also the difficulties that the Young Karelia movement has had in recent months. According to one of its leaders, Natalya Antonova, the group “increasingly encounters” resistance to its activities from the authorities.
But Shtepa is confident that this new paradigm will win out. As he points out, “people again love to talk about ‘the way out of the crisis,’ but this ‘way out’ will never mean a simple return to the pre-crisis situation. There must be a new paradigm visible, at least in prospect. Otherwise no one will be clear on where the ‘way out’ is leading.”

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