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Against The Grain

Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service in September 2009.
As Russia marked National Unity Day today and thousands marched in Moscow and other cities chanting nationalistic, xenophobic, and sometimes outright racist slogans, Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin traveled to Kazan to send a very different message.

"We wish to emphasize that Russia is a multiethnic country, where traditionally people lived in peace and friendship for centuries. The Russian people, the Tatar people, the Bashkir people, the Udmurt people, and the Caucasian people -- Avars, Chechens, and so on," Mitrokhin said in a meeting with voters in the Tatar capital. "For us, this issue is crucial. We see a tremendous threat to those values. This can have very dangerous consequences."

And to underscore this point, Mitrokhin presented Yabloko's party platform in the Tatar and Bashkir languages as well as in Russian.

Appearing together with Aleksei Yablokov, leader of Green Russia (who is third on the Yabloko electoral list) and Andrei Babushkin, leader of Yabloko's Tatarstan branch, Mitrokhin added that the party has made the platform available in other minority languages as well. (On Yabloko's website, the program, "Russia Needs Change," is already available in 15 languages)

They are the only major political party in Russia to make such a gesture.

Mitrokhin also said that no one in Russia would suffer if the Tatar language became Russia's second state language.

"This was our response to today's Russian marches," Mitrokhin wrote in his blog on Yabloko's website, adding that the sentiments behind the nationalist rallies "carves a demarcation line between the peoples."

Driving home the point, Mitrokhin raised the specter of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. "Twenty years ago, [Slobodan] Milosevic led Yugoslavia down this path," he wrote. "He raised Serbian nationalism to the level of a state ideology and ended up not only with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but also of Serbia itself."

Today's National Unity Day holiday, which was celebrated in the Russian Empire and was re-established by Vladimir Putin in 2005, marks the popular uprising which expelled Polish-Lithuanian forces from Moscow in November 1612, leading to the end of the Time of Troubles.

The holiday was originally designed to shore up support for the regime. But in Kazan, Mitrokhin said it has turned into little more than a platform for ultra-nationalists.

Yabloko's position stands out in a election season in which most major political parties are playing the nationalist card in one form or another. It also comes at a time when Tatar and other minority languages are coming under threat amid a drive to Russify the educational system in the ethnic republics.

Will it pay electoral dividends? Perhaps. Most analysts expect Yabloko to struggle to clear the seven-percent barrier to win seats in the State Duma in the December 4 parliamentary elections. And while a vocal anti-nationalist stand will most likely not harm the party with its urbane and liberal supporters, it may win them some votes among Tatars and other ethnic minorities.

But that all might be moot given how these elections are expected to go down -- no party is getting into the Duma unless the Kremlin, with its media dominance and vast administrative resources, wants them in.

Regardless, Mitrokhin's efforts to raise the level of public discourse today was, to say the least, refreshing.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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