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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Analogies May Be Dangerous

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 31 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev has suggested that Russia and Canada should cooperate because they are both multinational states and have federal political systems. But that analogy, undoubtedly intended to flatter his hosts, could create problems in both countries.

Seleznev met with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken on 28 May. Following those sessions, the Duma leader said that the two countries are interested in broad interparliamentary dialogue and that relations between Moscow and Canada "are shaping up quite well." Indeed, he insisted, Canada is "our crucial and, most important, sincere partner on the North American continent."

But he then drew an analogy between the two countries that has often caused problems for both Ottawa and Moscow in the past and that may, if Seleznev's remarks prove to be a harbinger of a new Russian approach to Canada, entail even more risks in the future.

By underscoring the fact that both Canada and Russia are multinational and federal states, Seleznev simultaneously calls attention to ethnic and federal problems in each, invites comparisons between the two, and may even help to power expanded cooperation not so much between the two central governments but between federal units and ethnic minorities in each country.

Canada faces at least three ethnic challenges: the re-intensification of Quebequois separatism, demands on the part of northern peoples for greater assistance, and claims by other ethnic minorities for larger assistance under Canada's longstanding program of multiculturalism. The Quebec issue is the most well-known, but the other issues may ultimately prove equally important, not only for Canada but also for Canadian relations with other states.

Moreover, Canada continues to face a series of federal issues reflecting economic and political differences not only among the country's provinces but also important disagreements over many issues between the provinces and the federal government in Ottawa. Any visitor who calls attention to these problems as Seleznev did almost inevitably risks offending his hosts.

The Russian Federation meanwhile also faces a variety of ethnic challenges, from Chechnya's efforts to gain independence to struggles over the proper balance of power between Moscow and the regions and even over whether Russia should remain a federal state or move in the direction of a unitary one.

More important than this list of issues is the likelihood that people in both countries may choose to compare what is going on in their homeland with what is going on elsewhere. In such comparisons, few Canadians are likely to be offended, but Seleznev's Russian audience is likely to be affected profoundly by any suggestion that Canada might have something to teach Russia on ethnic and federal issues.

The leaders of several non-Russian ethnic communities have already invoked the Canadian examples of multiculturalism and support for the Inuit in Canada's northern territories as models for what they would like. Seleznev's comments are only going to encourage them to do more. And such demands will inevitably generate opposition from those in Moscow who believe that devolution of powers to the regions is a mistake.

But perhaps the most intriguing possibility that Seleznev's Canadian analogy raises is that regional governments and especially ethnic communities in Canada and in the Russian Federation will reach out to one another and begin to cooperate. Some of this is already going on in Sister City-type programs, and Seleznev's comment will likely open the floodgates to more such exchanges between Canada's provinces and Russia's regions and republics.

And in one area, that could prove significant. Many of Russia's 26 indigenous northern nationalities already participate in the Inuit Circumpolar Conference as do Canada's Inuit and other residents of the Arctic north. Cooperation between the Arctic peoples of these two countries grew rapidly in the early 1990s but has slowed in recent years. Seleznev's remarks may trigger a revival.

If such a revival does occur as now seems likely, then Seleznev's analogy could have the unintended effect of intensifying ethnic and regional politics inside his own country even as his remarks offend some people inside of Canada.