By Paul Goble
In Soviet times, the predominantly Russian Slavic share of the population east of the Urals rose to 80 percent, overwhelming the non-Russians there and ensuring Moscow’s control. This eastward migration of Slavs came about both as a result of state coercion under Joseph Stalin and thanks to large subsidies for workers prepared to live far from European Russia. But with the collapse of subsidies starting in Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, the Slavic share of the population in that enormous region has fallen to 60 percent, with the non-Slavic share rising to 40 percent. If current trends continue, the two groups will be roughly equal in size within a decade, and the non-Russians will be a majority within two—a shift that parallels but is far greater and more rapid than that of Russia as a whole.
That is the conclusion of Yury Aksyutin, a specialist on demography and ethnic regions, in an article in the current issue of Novyye Issledovaniya Tuvy (Tuva.asia, June 2). Aksyutin focuses on the change in the ethnic composition of populations of specific regions and republics. His research shows non-Russians increasing relative to Russians in many of these territories even more rapidly than they are in Siberia and the Russian Far East as a whole. If anything, this trend is intensifying as aging Russian populations die off or depart and younger non-Russian groups have more children—even though their fertility rates are falling toward all-Russia averages, as Russian scholars invariably point out.
This trend has important domestic and foreign policy implications. Domestically, it almost certainly means that non-Russians in the titular republics will demand more positions be given to them rather than to Russian minders. This could set the stage for conflicts both within the political elite and in broader society, between the newly self-confident rising non-Russian populations and the declining and departing ethnic-Russian ones. If Moscow concedes the point to the non-Russians, it will have less leverage over these areas; if it does not, it will face a new round of rising nationalism and various kinds of ethnic assertiveness, possibly including a restart of the parade of sovereignties, which in the early 1990s threatened to break apart the Russian Federation (Asiarussia.ru, June 17).
And internationally, it has an impact on Russian national security. Compared to ethnic Russians, the non-Russians in Siberia and the Russian Far East are far more welcoming of the Chinese and Mongolians, viewing them as fellow Asiatics who have also been oppressed by “European” colonial powers. That has already led to a resurgence of pan-Mongol thinking about the Tuvins and to greater cultural and economic ties between Beijing and leaders of the non-Russian regions of Russia east of the Urals. As the population shift continues and the Russian economy declines, such relationships will only multiply and deepen, adding to Moscow’s security concerns about the expansion of Chinese influence there.
One immediate consequence is already apparent: Many of the non-Russians in this region are choosing to study Chinese as their preferred second or third language and are attending universities in China.