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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A New Kind Of Autonomy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government has extended extra-territorial cultural autonomy to that country's one million gypsies, an arrangement that will almost certainly benefit them but one that could call into question Moscow's commitment to territorial autonomy for other small groups.

Earlier this month, the Russian Ministry for Federation and Nationality Affairs publicly announced the creation of a special federal national-cultural autonomy arrangement for Russia's gypsies. This was the final step in a process that began in November 1999 and that was legally registered by the justice ministry in March 2000.

This kind of autonomy, ministry officials pointed out, is not like the territorial autonomy enjoyed by many other groups. It does not give the gypsies control over any particular territory but it does strengthen their rights by establishing a special council under the federation and nationalities ministry.

For a group like the gypsies who live dispersed in relatively small groups across the entire Russian Federation, such an arrangement is a major step forward. Up to now, the gypsies have been subject to discrimination in Russia as in many other countries. They do not have a single school or newspaper in their own language, and their past suffering has often been ignored.

Consequently, the establishment of a special council gives them a chance to speak out in defense of their national interests. And that is what they did last week. Their leaders attacked gypsy stereotypes in the Russian media and the failure of the Russian government to acknowledge the murder of gypsies in Nazi concentration camps.

Even if that is all this council is able to do, this opportunity to speak out will be welcome in a group that has seldom had much of a chance to do so on an official level. But the provision of this new kind of extraterritorial autonomy for one group raises the possibility that Moscow or someone else might come to see it as an option for still other groups.

The territorial autonomies within the Russian Federation are the product of a decision taken by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party before the 1917 revolution and institutionalized by Joseph Stalin after that time.

Indeed, the Soviet commitment to territorial autonomy was defined by opposition to the conception of extraterritorial cultural autonomy advanced by Austro-Hungarian Marxists Otto Bauer and Karl Renner.

In the early years of the 20th century, Bauer and Renner sketched out a system whereby individuals would enjoy national rights regardless of their place of residence rather than only in places where they had a majority of the population.

Such an arrangement appealed to many dispersed groups, including the Jews of tsarist Russia, but it was opposed by Lenin and others who saw it both as unwieldy administratively and as a threat to the unity of the working class.

And as a result, the communist authorities always opposed the idea of extraterritorial cultural autonomy for any group, and the Russian Federation until now has continued that Soviet-era opposition.

Now, however, Moscow has extended precisely that kind of autonomy to the gypsies, and other widely dispersed groups may come to see that as a goal for themselves, especially if they are not one of the nationalities enjoying even the limited rights of territorial autonomy now.

But the extension of extraterritorial cultural autonomy to the gypsies could have another consequence for non-Russians in the Russian Federation, one that could threaten the rights and privileges they now have.

In 16 of the 22 non-Russian autonomies inside the Russian Federation, the titular nationality forms less than half of the population, and in some cases vastly less than half. That has angered many Russians, and at least some of them might see an extraterritorial arrangement as a way of reducing non-Russian privileges.

At the very least, this possibility is likely to provoke debate both in Moscow and in non-Russian regions, one in which ideas born at the turn of the last century may structure new thinking about arrangements at the beginning of this one.