Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev named retired Federal Security Service Colonel and State Duma deputy Igor Barinov to head the new Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs.
The Kommersant daily, which two weeks earlier had quoted a presidential administration official as saying that Deputy Minister of Culture with responsibility for interethnic relations Aleksandr Zhuravsky was in line for that post, construed Barinov's appointment as heralding a tougher line on interethnic relations. So too did several other commentators.
How successful Barinov will prove to be in monitoring tensions with a view to averting "pogroms" such as that in Moscow's Biryulevo district in October 2013, is questionable, however, given that the new agency still has no office and no staff.
Moreover, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov, no additional government funding will be made available for it. In other words, the new agency may turn out to be "underfunded and powerless"
Over the past two decades, since then Federation Council Deputy Chairman Ramazan Abdulatipov in 1995 published an open letter in Nezavisimaya gazeta to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, arguing the need for a comprehensive nationalities policy geared toward preventing a recurrence of the Chechen War, Moscow's approach to assuring the harmonious coexistence of the country's 180+ ethnic groups has undergone numerous modifications and changes. So, too, has the federal body tasked with implementing that policy, which then Regional Development Minister Igor Slyunyayev calculated in 2013 had undergone a dozen different incarnations.
But while Yeltsin clearly acknowledged the need for a separate government ministry to oversee interethnic relations, Putin abolished it in 2001.
The Ministry of Nationality and Regional Policy was created in 1994; its status upgraded from that of a State Committee, and renamed the Ministry for Nationality Affairs and Federal Relations in 1996. Then, in September 1998, the ministry was split into two components, the Ministry for Nationality Policy (headed by Abdulatipov) and the Ministry for Regional Policy (headed by Valery Kirpichnikov, formerly the president of the Union of Russian Cities).
Less than a year later, in July 1999, the move was reversed and the two ministries were again amalgamated. Vyacheslav Mikhailov, who had served as nationalities minister from 1995 to 1996, was reappointed to that post, but was dismissed in January 2000 and replaced by former Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Aleksandr Blokhin.
In July 2000, the Federal Migration Agency was abolished, and its functions subsumed into a new combined Ministry for Federation Affairs, Nationality, and Migration Policy.
In October 2001, however, Putin abolished that mega-ministry, but named Vladimir Zorin as minister without portfolio responsible for nationalities affairs.
From 2004, interethnic relations were the responsibility, first, of a separate department within the Ministry of Regional Development, and then, after that ministry in turn was abolished last fall, the Ministry of Culture.
Following the adoption of a new state strategy on nationality policy in the fall of 2012, the question once again emerged as to which agency would assume responsibility for implementing it: a new ministry, as some State Duma deputies advocated, or a department within the presidential administration.
Predictably, in light of his apparent inability to comprehend the importance of the issue, Putin opted for an agency, rather than a full-fledged ministry, which will reportedly comprise the existing section within the Ministry of Culture responsible for nationality issues, but will be subordinate not to the federal government, but to the presidential administration, within which first deputy administration head Vyacheslav Volodin and his deputy, former Republic of Daghestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov, are responsible for nationality policy.
How the new federal agency will interact with the federal ministries for the North Caucasus, the Far East, and Crimea, has not yet been spelled out.
Meanwhile, a group of State Duma deputies plans to propose the abolition of the presidential envoys to the nine federal districts, whose duties include monitoring interethnic tensions and rivalries. (An exception may be made for the North Caucasus and Volga Federal Districts.)
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has reportedly calculated that scrapping the presidential envoys and their staff would abolish 3,000 government jobs and save some 3 billion rubles ($54 million) per year.
-- Liz Fuller