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Rumblings In The Republics: New Russian Nationalities Policy Sparks Outcry

  • Nail Khisamiev
  • Robert Coalson

Cultural tug-of-war? Children at an inter-ethnic camp in Omsk, Russia

Cultural tug-of-war? Children at an inter-ethnic camp in Omsk, Russia

A potentially explosive political kettle has been simmering in Russia for months, and it may well boil over in the weeks to come.

Shortly after his return to the Kremlin in May, President Vladimir Putin ordered the drafting of a new State Nationalities Policy.

The document, which was to be unveiled on December 1, sets guidelines for political, economic, and cultural policies affecting Russia's nearly 200 ethnic groups, and the drafting process has been followed closely by almost all of them, from Adyghe to Yakuts.

Drafting commission head Vyacheslav Mikhailov says the new policy aims to strengthen a single identity for the entire country, to develop its ethnic diversity, and to strength civic unity and interethnic harmony.

But critics charge that some of the ideas that emerged in the process, such as merging small ethnic republics with other regions, would lead to ethnic Russian domination and the erosion of the status of non-Russian nationalities.

"You have to be completely brainless to put forward such a strategy," Marat Kulsharipov, a historian and analyst based in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, says. "It is literally a bomb in Russia's basement."

Driving Principle

Critics in Russia's ethnic republics are also worried about a bill working its way through the State Duma that they say would diminish the status of local languages at the expense of Russian.

"This country can be saved, but that will take effort," says Indus Tahirov, a Kazan-based political analyst. "This is not an ethnically Russian country; it is a multiethnic country. This is not a Christian country; this is a multireligious country. They should understand that it is a federation giving equal rights to everyone. Only this kind of policy can save the country."

After strenuous protests from Tatarstan, overt calls for merging ethnic republics with other regions were removed from the draft, but critics say the ideology behind the idea still saturates the document. Tatarstan historian Rafael Mukhametdinov says you can see the real aim of the policy by looking closely at the language.

"The exposition of this strategy is very weak. The language is imprecise -- it seems to have been prepared very quickly, although when they are explaining the policies toward Russians, it becomes very accurate," Mukhametdinov says.

"It says there is a Russian nation and that it is compulsory to know the Russian language in Russia. As soon as it comes to non-Russians, the text becomes very complicated. It becomes hard to understand what they mean. I think this is done on purpose."

Doing Away With Ethnic Names

During the drafting of the nationalities policy, a number of related events occurred that many interpreted as efforts to inflame what is already a potentially explosive situation.

For example, the controversial language bill, which has passed its first reading in the Duma, would allow parents in ethnic republics to determine whether their children had to study native languages. Such a law could deal a serious blow to minority languages such as Tatar and Bashkir because Russia offers no higher-education opportunities in languages other than Russian and the state entrance exams for universities are given only in Russian.

Tatar activists protest the Russian State Duma's new draft language law in Kazan on December 1.

Tatar activists protest the Russian State Duma's new draft language law in Kazan on December 1.


Meanwhile, a lawmaker in Chechnya proposed merging all six North Caucasus republics into one entity with a nonethnic name such as the Mountain Republic.

Even more controversially, an academic in Daghestan named Abdul-Nasir Dibirov proposed renaming Bashkortostan (named for the Bashkir ethnic group) as the Ufa Republic and changing Tatarstan (named for the Tatars) into the Kazan Republic.

In comments to RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, Dibirov argues that renaming the ethnic republics could be a "first step" in perfecting Russia's federal structure.

"The ethnic element of the names of republics makes sense only if the ethnic elites of those republics harbor the idea that someday they will have the chance to leave Russia and form independent countries -- an ethnic Tatar state or an ethnic Bashkir state or some other," Dibirov says. "If we want to perfect the federal structure of Russia, we must begin with some steps. And the first step shouldn't be the liquidation of those republics, but with changing their names."

Looming Backlash

In October, oligarch and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov went even further, giving a speech in which he criticized Russia's ethnic republics and called for constitutional amendments that would eliminate them.

Renat Zakirov, head of the World Congress of Tatars, has denounced the proposal as a threat to Russia's stability. "This person is itching to destroy the country," he charges. "The role of the ethnic republics in preserving the stability of the Russian Federation is enormous. This man seems to be opposed to that [stability]."

And earlier this month, a little-known think tank called Peterburgskaya Politika issued a report ranking Tatarstan as one of the least stable regions of the Russian Federation and saying that the commemoration of Tatarstan's Remembrance Day -- which marks the conquering of the Tatar state in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible -- is a "threat" to social and economic stability.

With the formal policy about to be unveiled, a backlash is brewing.

On December 1, demonstrations against the language bill, which is scheduled for a crucial second reading in the Duma on December 11, took place in Kazan and Ufa.

About 50 people attended an event organized by the Kuk Bure (Gray Wolf) youth movement in Ufa calling for the Bashkir language to be taught in schools. In Kazan, a rally organized by the Azatlik Tatar youth organization drew about 30 people. Demonstrators held posters with slogans like "If I don't have my language tomorrow, I'm dead today" and urging Tatarstan's parliament to support Tatar language education.

Activists from the Kuk Bure youth organization demonstrate in support of the Bashkir language in Ufa on December 1.

Activists from the Kuk Bure youth organization demonstrate in support of the Bashkir language in Ufa on December 1.


In the event that the Duma passes the bill, members of Tatarstan's regional parliament have proposed that representatives from ethnic republics hold a meeting in Kazan to come up with a unified counterstrategy.

And on December 6, the World Congress of Tatars will convene in Kazan. Founded in 1992, the congress has primarily been a sociocultural and spiritual body. But this year there have been numerous, insistent calls for it to become politically active and take up the issue of Russia's nationalities policy.

Bashkir historian Kulsharipov is among those who insist Russia's ethnic communities must reject the new policy statement. "This strategy cannot be accepted in our republics, since it is against our interests," he says. "They tried once to create a 'Soviet' ethnicity during the Soviet period. Now we are going back to that. Creating one Russian nation means that our ethnicities will be assimilated."

RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Service correspondent Alsu Kurmasheva contributed to this report

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