Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#20 - JRL 2006-206 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
September 11, 2006
A Question of Power
The State Must be Proactive in Challenging Extremism
Comment by Sergei Markedonov
Sergei Markedonov is head of the international relations department of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.

The recent violence in Karelia was just the latest in a long list of racially-motivated attacks in Russia this year. As Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the Analytical Department at the Center for Political Technologies, notes: “In the 1990s, Russia saw a lot of arguments about which radicalism was the most dangerous and currently most important for the country – left or right. At that time most attention was given to left-wing radicalism. And consequently, the concern over right-wing radicalism diminished. First, the authorities did not see it as a serious political opponent – the fascist subculture in Russia is one of the most ‘indifferent’ to the current authorities. Secondly, it was considered that society in a county that defeated fascism would not put up with right-wing radicals – as long as its historical memory remained strong.” But time has proved such sentiments wrong. And simultaneously these horrific incidents, which have become all too familiar, are not being seriously considered by the expert community. They fail to see that this wave of ethnic Russian nationalism is a threat not only to the rights and freedoms of Russia’s citizens, but also to the integrity of the country as a whole. At the same time, experts have also failed to look deeper into the reasons behind this violence perpetrated in the name of the flag, defending “Russianness” and the “purity of the white race.”

Over the past 15 years, Russia has experienced two peaks of ethno-political activity. In the early 1990s, the main challenge to Russia’s new statehood was self-determination among ethnic minorities in the regions, which was felt most keenly in the North Caucasus republics, as well as Tatarstan and Tuva. During this period, the most militant ethno-nationalism was carried out by ethnic minorities arguing for top positions for “native peoples” in politics and business. By 2000, the situation had changed, and the activities of regional ethnic elites had been replaced by the political awakening of the country’s ethnic majority – the Russians.

Sociologist Emil Pain notes that an ethnic consciousness among a majority, such as the Russians, could in itself be seen as a positive phenomenon, indicating the replacement of the inferiority complex of the 1990’s with new levels of self-respect. Had this process not been accompanied by an escalation in fear and phobias, this resurgence of Russian pride could have been a positive development. Sociological research from various sources – VTsIOM, the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), and many others – has demonstrated a steady trend of growing support for the idea of Russia being a country for ethnic Russians (“Rossiya dlya russkikh”). Some surveys results place support for an “ethnically Russian Russia” at over 60 percent. In recent years, ethnic Russian respondents have identified significantly broadened numbers of ethnic “opponents”. Whereas in the 1990s, they saw only Chechens as ethnic enemies, today these ranks include Tajiks, Azeris, Moldovans, Ukrainians and even ethnic Russian migrants from other former Soviet republics.

Russian ethno-nationalism has ceased to be a marginal tendency. The “ethnic Russian idea”, in various forms, has been fully rehabilitated. References to a “special Russian way” have become obligatory even for liberal publications. High-ranking officials, lawmakers and respectable publicists talk about the ethno-political role of Russians in preserving the country. The issue of giving ethnic Russians official status as a state-forming people is widely discussed by respectable experts. Preliminary data from the 2002 census has become a kind of legitimating resource for defenders of the “Russian renaissance.”

The Russian and foreign expert communities were prepared for ethnic minorities to assert their independence; this was simply a natural consequence of the fall of the Soviet empire. But they did not foresee this correlated consequence, and so the “Russian renaissance” of today is painted as an irrational outburst of dark forces. In reality, however, the growth of ethnic Russian nationalism is a process just as objective and rational as ethnic self-determination for the Tatars, Chechens, and Ossetians was in the early 1990s. Increased xenophobia among the ethnic majority was the answer to the assertiveness of ethnic minorities in the early 1990s. This fact in no way serves to justify the actions of skinheads, but at the same time, it should be stated without fear of political correctness that the mass political frustration of the ethnic Russian population is a consequence of the mistakes and miscalculations made at the start of the 1990s.

According to Emil Pain, given a relative lack of ethnic activity and awareness in the 1990’s, the authorities were mainly relieved the ethnic majority was not in revolt. The liberal intelligentsia had suggested the Russian people shoulder the blame for the crimes of the empire. Such calls came against a backdrop of ethnic cleansing in Chechnya – from where 220,000 Russians fled – and Russians being driven out of Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkariya, and Tuva. Between 1991-1994, Russian rights activists did nothing to draw global attention to the problems Russians faced in Chechnya. According to Lidiya Grafova, head of the Forum for Emigrant Organizations: “We sincerely believed that Chechen refugees should be given preferential treatment over Russians, because we felt historical guilt for the deportation [of 1944 when Stalin deported the Chechens and Ingush en masse to Central Asia for suspected collaboration with the Nazis]. Most rights activists still adhere to this opinion.”

There was also no serious plan for providing support to Russians living in the former Soviet republics when they became independent states. For Russian migrants to the CIS, the new Russia turned out not to be the promised Motherland but an inhospitable stepmother. Unlike democratic Greece, Hungary and Germany, where help for such compatriots is seen as a priority for the state. In post-Soviet Russia, this problem was very much left on the back burner of domestic politics. These miscalculations and mistakes facilitated the monopolization of the “Russian question” by extremists, and why the “Russian renaissance” began to be seen as political revanchism.

In today’s world, however, embracing a policy that exalts one ethnicity over others, coupled with a militant anti-Westernism and isolationism, will force Russia down a backward path. Russia cannot become a superpower in the 21st century by declaring Russians to be the crowning glory of the universe and closing the door to high office for ethnic minorities. Although there is some discrimination against Russians and Russian-speakers in other former Soviet republics and even within some Russian regions, giving Russians a special “state-forming status,” adopting a law on the Russian people and acknowledging the Russian people as “native,” will not in and of itself make life better for ethnic Russians either inside or outside Russia. Such juridical norms will only result in renewed drives for independence from ethnic groups such as the Tatars, Bashkir and Ingush.

Today the Russian authorities need to understand a simple truth. Russian ethno-nationalism is not a means to combat ethno-separatism on the fringes. The activities of skinheads, while terrible, are not nearly as dangerous as Russian revanchists in power. On the other hand, the authorities should reassure ethnic Russian public opinion and wrest the political initiative from the hands of extremist nationalists. This definitely does not mean adopting a raft of political decisions such as tightening rules on registration or migration. The Russian question today needs a more integrated solution. If Russia’s authorities do not react to this swell in public opinion, the consequences could be extremely sad. Inaction by the authorities provides the best support possible for those advocating a “Russia for the ethnic Russians.”