MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin has called on lawmakers to immediately develop federal legislation on the "Russian nation," in an apparent effort to project an image of unity among Russia's peoples.
"What we really absolutely can and must work on -- what we should think about and start practical work on -- is a law on the Russian nation," Putin told a meeting of the Council for Interethnic Relations in Astrakhan on October 31.
The title of the proposed law pointedly uses the term Russian nation (российская нация), as opposed to wording that would denote ethnic Russians (русская). The approach appears intended to highlight the diversity of the country's population and Putin's call comes just days before Unity Day, a public holiday to be held on November 4 that is traditionally used by far-right nationalists to stage marches.
Speaking in Astrakhan on October 31, Putin did not provide details of what the legislation would entail. But he did say that good interethnic relations were key to Russia's existence, and that the new law should build on and improve upon the country's existing strategy for developing unity among the country's more than 190 ethnic groups.
"The principal issue here is the coordination between various agencies engaged in implementing state policy for ethnic relations," he said. "There are over 10 such agencies at the federal level alone, and there are also regional and municipal structures. Cooperation between them is always ineffective and constant interaction with expert groups has not been started."
Putin's call came the same day that the city of Moscow, after rejecting several applications from nationalists to demonstrate, granted permission for them to hold their annual march in a southeastern district of the capital.
Anti-Kremlin Russian nationalists have come under pressure recently, highlighted by the October 28 arrest of Dmitry Dyomushkin, a key organizer of the nationalist Russian March parade in past years. He has been charged with extremism and placed under house arrest.
The legislation was originally proposed at the meeting in Astrakhan by Vyacheslav Mikhailov, an academic at the Russian Academy of People's Agriculture and State Service.
Mikhailov told Interfax that legislation could formally clarify Russia's view of itself. "Some believe it is a civilian nation, others that it is a nation of nationalities, a multiethnic people," he said.
Speaking to reporters on November 1, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to clarify how the legislation would function: "This has as yet been proposed as an idea that was supported by the head of state, and I would not like to go into details. Let's wait for experts to work a little on this issue."
Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, came out in support of the proposal, telling Interfax that "this law is a symbol of the new degree of development of Russia."
Others were not open to the idea.
Kremlin critic and journalist Oleg Kashin attacked the proposal, writing in a column that "the nation we see turned out not to be needed by Putin. For simplicity's sake, I'll call it Russian [eds. русский]."
"Putin's nation is the nation of [pro-Kremlin] biker 'The Surgeon,' the nation of [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov, the nation of fans of [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin, and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu," he added.
Communist Party official Sergei Obukhov, meanwhile, warned against copying the "melting pot" idea of nationhood seen in the United States and the EU.
"My guess is that the Russian nation law could be a carbon copy of the American political nation but we all see that this does not work," Central Committee secretary Obukhov told Interfax. "Just like the united European nation is not working, the melting-pot concept is not working either."