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Medvedev seen as 'vague' on nationalism

Demonstrators with Red Flares Near Kremlin in EveningHold onto Russian traditions in the face of cultural clashes, president Medvedev told assembled lawmakers on Monday, as he exhorted Russians to be tolerant but not forget their own culture.

When 5,000 ultra-nationalists went on the rampage at Manezhnaya Ploshchad in December it became alarmingly clear that Russia's simmering ethnic tensions had reached boiling point.

"We must pay attention to our multi-ethnic culture, but undoubtedly we should pay especial attention to our own Russian culture. This is the base for everything, the backbone of our multi-ethnic culture. This is quite alright and we should not be ashamed to say it," he said (see the speech in Russian on the presidential website).

No clear policy

"Manezhnaya was another reason to begin talking about it, but these issues have been raised many times before already," Alexei Chesnokov, United Russia Public Council on Mass Media Relations chairman, told The Moscow News.

"Since 2005, 2006 there have been rising tensions between different nationalities and it has happened because of problems with immigration and because there has been no consensus on how to treat it," he said. "Manezhnaya was just another stimulus to start talking about it again."

And lack of direction is clear, says Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Centre, "What I think is becoming obvious is not only that this issue has been neglected, but that there is also very little in the way of ideological guidelines, or a clear view of the Russian state and what its principles are.

"This has become very obvious to observers but never to the top level. The Russian government is lacking something that is even close to an ideology," she said by telephone.

Grim prospect

No-one knows how to treat skinheads, says Peter Lavelle, political commentator and presenter of "CrossTalk" on Russia Today.

"I personally am not very optimistic [about the way this is going] because in Russia hooliganism ranges from spitting on the streets to getting into a brawl and there is no clear discourse.

"This is one of the reasons for the violence. We don't have a language to talk about these tensions and resolve them," he told The Moscow News.

Olive branches all round

While a debate on ethnic tolerance in countries like Britain and France invites a familiar cast of mainly liberal thinkers, nationalists who want to preserve Russian identity make their presence keenly felt in the debate here.

Medvedev's speech had something for everyone in this respect, those who lean towards integration and those who want to guard Russian culture.

"The president must take into account all the points of view in society and that's what he is trying to do, and he was very natural in his speech," Chenokov said.

Tolerance evasive

"What is missing in Russia is this critical mass of tolerance or political correctness, which has become a given in western society. There are still nationalist sentiments, but it is received wisdom that the majority should be tolerant," said Lipman.

World War II taught western Europe hard lessons about racial tolerance and their legacy has become deeply rooted, she said. "These are not the lessons that Russia or the Soviet Union drew from World War II, Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign was launched after World War II," she added.

Self-identified liberal politicians are now abandoning liberal principles and blaming migration, even from within Russia, as the root of social problems, she said.

The shape the debate is taking does not surprise Dr Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"If you want to bring people in you have to make concessions...I am afraid that they are going the wrong direction...Maybe [Medvedev]'s taking it more seriously than in the past, but it is too early to tell," he told The Moscow News.

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