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Baltics: Analysis From Washington -- Accommodation Versus Assimilation

Washington, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Economic considerations may lead members of ethnic minorities in the post-Soviet states to reach an accommodation with the dominant group in the countries they find themselves in but are unlikely to assimilate for that reason alone.

That is the conclusion of an article by Eduard Ponarin, who teaches at St. Petersburg's European University, in the latest issue of "Europe-Asia Studies," and it is one that challenges assumptions codified in a 1998 book by University of Chicago Scholar David Laitin. But more important than that, Ponarin's findings have important implications for the future of interethnic relations across the post-Soviet world.

In his book, "Identity in Formation: The Russian Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad," Laitin argued that ethnic Russians in Estonia were far more likely to assimilate to the dominant nation there than ethnic Russians in Ukraine because they would benefit economically from doing so far more in Estonia than in Ukraine.

Laitin's conclusions have been challenged earlier but typically on the basis of presumed shortcomings in the model of economic rationality that he assumes guides the decisions of individual ethnic Russians in these situations and because Laitin assumes that their ethnic identity is relatively plastic, an assumption based on his earlier research among African countries.

But Ponarin has now reanalyzed Laitin's own data and reached very different and indeed in several key respects directly opposite conclusions. Ponarin suggests that in Estonia, many ethnic Russians are learning Estonian in order to accommodate themselves to the existing situation, but he argues that few of them are inclined to assimilate, to change their identities, because of the often negative views each group has of the other.

In Ukraine, on the other hand, ethnic Russians may have fewer economic reasons to accommodate themselves to the Ukrainian situation, but Ponarin argues, they are far more likely to assimilate because of the similarities between the cultures of the two nations and because most members of each have a more positive view of the other than is the case in Estonia.

Ponarin's findings have both theoretical and practical consequences. Theoretically, they suggest that ethnic identity in the post-Soviet region may prove far stronger than many Western scholars have assumed up to now and that economic rationality will not overwhelm identity choices, especially if there are relatively deep cultural divides.

Moreover, by suggesting that groups may accommodate themselves by becoming bilingual but retaining their own ethnic identities, Ponarin provides a new term for a dimension in ethnic relations: accommodation. Thus, the choice for ethnic groups in this region may not be as stark or as final as retaining their existing identity or shifting entirely to another one.

But it is the practical consequences of Ponarin's conclusions which are especially intriguing.

First, the existence of the accommodationist option may simply delay rather than eliminate ethnic minority challenges.

If an ethnic minority decides to accommodate itself to a situation when economic conditions are good, it may opt out and challenge the majority on an ethnic basis should economic conditions deteriorate. And once a group has entered the political system through accommodation, it may find itself in an even better position to challenge the dominant nation than it was as a relative outsider.

Second, the risk that a group which is accommodating itself to the dominant community now might do so in the future may change the attitudes of the dominant community to that accommodationist minority. Ponarin argues that "the position of Russians in the Baltic [is] similar to that of the Soviet Kazakhs," in that they will retain their identity even if they learn the language and mores of the dominant community.

In contrast, Ponarin argues, the position of ethnic Russians in Ukraine is "more similar to the position of Ukrainians in the Russian Federation" today, one in which assimilation is far more likely.

And third, Ponarin's conclusions suggest that international organizations working in these varied situations need to recognize such differences lest their efforts and those of the governments involved produce unintended and unwanted consequences.

Because the difference in the views of Laitin and Ponarin are so great, this debate is certain to continue rather than be resolved anytime soon. But the distinctions Ponarin makes between accommodation and assimilation seem certain to affect both the debate itself and the countries over which this debate is taking place.