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Russia: Russians Up, Non-Russians Down, Federalism Out In New Concept Draft

  • Paul Goble

Moscow's new draft concept paper on nationality policy elevates the status of the Russians as a nation, lowers that of non-Russian groups, and drops any mention of either federalism or the need for the government to address the problems of those nationalities who were deported in Soviet times.

As such, it represents a potentially significant departure from the Russian government's 1996 concept paper. But both because this is only a partial draft rather than the approved whole and because Moscow has frequently ignored the provisions of the earlier concept paper and may do so again, the practical impact of these shifts is far from certain.

Nonetheless, the new draft does highlight the centralizing thrust of Russian policy under President Vladimir Putin while at the same time calling attention to the lack of agreement within the country's political elite over precisely how to handle what has been and remains one of the most neuralgic issues of post-Soviet life.

Moscow's "Kommersant-Daily" published on 11 October portions of the draft concept paper. That document, prepared by an interagency governmental commission and leaked now to test public reaction, is explicitly intended to replace the 1996 paper and reflect "the end of one stage of the development of society and its transition to the next."

It says that the primary function of Russian policy in the area of ethnic relations no longer is to prevent the disintegration of the country, as was the case earlier, but rather to promote "the formation of the institutes of civil society and the formation of the Russian ["rossiiskii"] people ["narod"] as a single nation ["natsiya"]."

And the document, as reproduced in "Kommersant-Daily," further asserts that Russia must become "a single multinational society in which the Russian ["russkii"] people plays the consolidating role," even as it implicitly reduces the status of ethnicity by talking about a "civil society" and of all other nations there by referring to them as "ethnic groups."
Both the Russian authorities as well as Russians and non-Russians alike will probably view this document less as a final decision about the direction that their country should take than as an indication of where that debate about that now stands.


Some may view these provisions as a clear victory for Russian nationalists, but there are reasons for thinking otherwise. On the one hand, the draft is confusing, even contradictory use of terms for Russian, nation, and people, will offend many Russian nationalists. And on the other, the draft includes some provisions non-Russians may see as benefiting them.

Among the draft's many specific provisions Russian nationalists will like and many non-Russians will find troubling are its assertions about "the consolidating role of the Russian people" in the life of the country and its calls for "the defense and support of the Russian language as the state language" and for Russian "compatriots" living abroad.

But among the draft's ideas that some non-Russians will like and many Russian nationalists won't, include its declaration that the country remains a "multinational" one and its calls for taking national differences into account, defending the rights of national minorities and their milieux, and promoting tolerance and training non-Russian cadres.

Because of these contradictions, both the Russian authorities as well as Russians and non-Russians alike will probably view this document less as a final decision about the direction that their country should take than as an indication of where that debate about that now stands.

And consequently, perhaps the most thoughtful comment on the draft concept offered so far came from Rafael Khakimov, the director of the Institute of History in Kazan, an adviser to Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev, and a frequent commentator on ethnic and religious issues.

In remarks quoted by "Kommersant-Daily," Khakimov said that the document represented a bow "to the Big Brother," a reference to the Elder Brother, as Russians were styled in Soviet times. "If this does not have any impact except to elicit the gratitude of the Russians, then why not do it." But if it has real world "consequences," that would be something else.

If, for example, Khakimov continued, this concept paper leads Moscow to adopt policies in which one language has priority and others are denied that status, then this will have consequences for many people -- and in his native Tatarstan, he warned, those consequences could prove to be both "political" and "serious."
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