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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Nationality Question And Russian Foreign Policy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian foreign policy analyst has urged Moscow to use its nationality policies at home to promote its foreign policy goals. But he has warned that the Russian government must at the same time take into consideration certain foreign policy challenges when dealing with its domestic ethnic minorities.

Writing in last Saturday's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Igor Igoshin argues that those who view Russia's numerous ethnic issues as a purely domestic affair are deeply mistaken because "a number of foreign policy goals critically important for Moscow are connected in the closest way with the nationality question," the term Russians have used since the 19th century to denote interethnic issues.

Igoshin identified four such foreign policy issues. Two of these involve situations in which he argues the Russian government can use ethnic issues to promote its own agenda. And two of which confront Moscow with challenges it can only meet if it understands their implications for domestic interethnic relations and responds appropriately both at home and abroad.

The first of these issues, Igoshin says, involves "the support of the Russian-language population in the former Soviet republics." This is in the first instance a moral and ethical requirement because these people who were native to Russia were "practically thrown to their fates" in the early 1990s.

But, he adds, "this problem has another side as well." The Russian-speaking communities in many of the former Soviet republics form "a significant portion" of the population -- in Latvia, for example, some 34 percent in 1991. Such diasporas, Igoshin suggests "are capable of becoming a serious internal political factor in former Soviet republics which will have a positive influence on the relations" between these countries and Russia.

He pointedly notes that there are "many such examples" of diasporas having this effect: "The Jewish community of the U.S., which is much smaller in size, has exerted through pressure on the government the most powerful support of Israel over the course of several decades." Russian-speaking groups abroad, Igoshin says, are fully capable of playing the same role in what he calls "the near abroad."

Moreover, the use of such groups in this way, he suggests, is something Russia can do "despite the widespread view" of its foreign policy weakness. Russia's economic presence, its ability to direct the flow of goods across some countries but not others, and its ability to conduct propaganda, Igoshin argues, give Moscow the ability to have an impact on Russian communities abroad and through them on the governments of the countries in which they live.

The second of these issues, again one where Moscow can use its ethnic policies to promote its interests, involves the possible unification of Russia and former Soviet republics into a single state such as its ongoing efforts to form a new union state with Belarus. Obviously, Igoshin says, not all countries of this region are interested. Those that are are likely to become more so, he continues, if Moscow recognizes that "the nationality question is one of the capstones" of such a process.

To the extent it acknowledges this fact, Igoshin argues, "a most important task for Russia is the formation of conditions which will assist the further improvement of relations between the peoples of Russia and the states with which unification is really possible. Igoshin does not draw the obvious corollary that Moscow will have less interest in doing that with groups whose co-ethnics outside of Russia are not interested in unity.

The third area where Russia's nationality question takes on a foreign policy dimension, albeit a more defensive one, concerns what Igoshin calls "the sharpening of tensions in the southern direction," the rise of Muslim groups which threaten Russia's interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

He says that this threat to ethnic harmony within Russia is potentially so great, as Chechnya has already shown, that Moscow must be prepared to counter it even with non-diplomatic means including the actions of special services, military actions, and so on. Failure to do so, Igoshin says will mean that it will be "simply impossible to defeat national extremism in Russia" itself.

And the fourth area he identifies is also one in which Igoshin argues nationality policy must play a role: countering what he suggests is "the extraordinarily complex problem" likely to arise in Russia's Far East. "The active resettlement into Siberian regions of representatives of neighboring states with more dense populations" -- by clear implication, the People's Republic of China -- presents a threat to Russian control.

Indeed, he suggests that this influx of outsiders could lead to a situation captured by the old Soviet anecdote about a future BBC report that there has been "a stabilization of the situation on the Finnish-Chinese border."

On the one hand, Igoshin's argument is little more than a revival of an early Soviet approach in which the nationality question was always linked to colonial issues and a restatement of the frequent observation in other countries that foreign and domestic politics are inevitably interrelated -- especially as societies become more open.

But on the other hand, the appearance of this argument in such explicit form now suggests that Moscow is increasingly open to the possibilities of using ethnicity to promote its goals and also increasingly concerned that others may use ethnicity against Russia itself.