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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Can a Nationality Become An Ethnic Group?

Washington, 1 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tatars in the Russian capital of Moscow are attempting to transform their community from a Soviet-defined 'nationality' to an ethnic group of the kind familiar in Western democracies, but as the leaders of that community admit, their success in this effort remains far from certain.

Rasim Akchurin, the president of the regional Tatar national cultural autonomy, described in an interview published 24 February in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" both the aspirations of his community and also the difficulties it faces in making this transition.

Akchurin's organization was created on the basis of a 1996 Russian law "on national cultural autonomy." That legislation was designed to give groups either lacking a state-defined territorial entity or living beyond the borders of the one listed as being theirs the possibility of creating ethnic institutions such as schools and social service agencies to support their community.

That law marked a major break with the Soviet past. As set up by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet system gave language and other cultural rights to non-Russian nationalities only on the territory of the republic or entity bearing its name. That is, a Tatar living in Tatarstan could attend a Tatar-language school only in Tatarstan. (The Russians were the exception; Russian-language institutions were provided for them everywhere.)

Tatars or other groups who lived over widely dispersed areas or who moved out of their ethnic republics were given little or no cultural or linguistic support and were in the Soviet understanding expected to assimilate to the dominant nation, typically Russian, among whom they lived.

For the Tatars, this was a particular problem to the future of their nation because three-quarters of its members live beyond the borders of the Republic of Tatarstan in the Middle Volga. Hence, they have been among the most active in taking advantage of the provisions of the 1996 act.

They have organized district and regional committees, one of which Akchurin heads. They have set up schools, special courses, and social clubs. And they have sought to maintain their national identity in much the same way that ethnic communities do in democratic societies.

But they face several major obstacles in transforming themselves from a Soviet-style nationality to a Western-style ethnic group.

First, the Tatars of Moscow have to follow the provisions of the law which rigidly set registration requirements but to do so without the financial support of the government. Akchurin said that the city and regional authorities had provided help but that the federal government has not.

Second, the 1996 law prohibits the Tatar community from engaging in politics. Consequently, it cannot seek to pressure the government or promote candidates for office as other social groups in a civil society are allowed to do. Instead, ethnic communities, like religious communities, are precluded from legal political participation, a prohibition that may lead to the politicization of these groups in ways the state cannot control.

And third, the 1996 law and those who implement it continue to use Soviet-era terminology. Akchurin said last week that he did not like his community to be called a Diaspora or even a national cultural community. He pointed out that Tatars have been living in Moscow "since the moment of the founding of the city" and therefore cannot be properly viewed as a Diaspora.

The Tatar leader said that he believes the community should be called what it calls itself, a community, one not interested in standing aside from the life of other groups in the Russian capital but also committed to maintaining its sense of individual and collective identity.

Akchurin suggested that all 'nationalities' in the Russian Federation should have the same rights as his group seeks, including ethnic Russians living among non-Russian communities in various parts of that country. If Akchurin's vision triumphs, then the Russian Federation will have made an important step forward toward the creation of a civil society defined by more than just the existence of non-governmental organizations.

The fact that he is in a position to give this interview is a source of hope. But the survivals of past Soviet thinking on this subject to which he refers indicate that he, the Tatars, and other groups in that country face an uphill struggle in transforming themselves from nationality to ethnic group and their country from a state-defined organization into a civil society.