"Being a Tatar in Bashkortostan is hard–but is it any easier for a Russian in Tatarstan? Or a Chechen in Moscow?"

– Vladimir Putin

In their search for a national identity, Russians are making active use of old political and ideological methods and symbols. To some extent this reflects nothing more than a desire for continuity, to repudiate unjust assessments of certain periods in Russia’s history. But reverting to past practice is also linked with today’s problems of education and mobilization. This is equally evident in the Russian government’s policy towards its national minorities.

The concept was approved by President Boris Yeltsin in June 1996, during the first Chechen war. And now, with war once again in the background, the need for a new model has been officially declared. It is becoming the norm for the direction of the state to change with the president.

In post-Soviet Russia, nationality questions were a more visible part of national political discourse, and were dealt with in a relatively liberal spirit of dialog, with a certain amount of independence permitted at the regional level. This, as is traditional in Russia, meant that there was also room for bureaucratic arbitrariness, local excesses and plain misappropriation, hiding behind talk of privileges for the “peoples of the north,” for instance, or by setting up special economic zones with tax exemptions.

Meanwhile, Russian society after 1991 generally experienced significantly fewer interethnic tensions and phobias, conflicts being mostly social or political. But the inconsistency and corruption of the authorities, as well as some individual mistakes made by the country’s leadership, gradually produced serious ethnic problems, which have deepened since the start of the second Chechen war in September 1999. So, the nationalities concept does need an overhaul. However, it is being introduced as part of a broader strategy aimed at reinforcing Moscow as the federal center. (See Nikolai Petrov, “Federal reform, two and a half years on,” Russia Eurasia Review, January 7, 2003.) The new nationality policy is already visible in both practical steps by the authorities and in various speeches by various political leaders. The ground was prepared on the establishment of the federal okrugs, and by moves local authorities made to establish their own policies on nationality, either exiling the representatives of certain peoples or making life very hard for them. At a conference in October 2002, Vladimir Zorin, Russia’s minister for nationalities policy, called for new thinking on nationality policy, to reflect changes in the country’s ethnic and religious map, as shown in the census that took place that month.

Zorin’s call was rejected by the deputy director of Moscow’s Institute of Ethnology, Sergei Cheshko, who said that “there is no policy that can resolve theproblems of nationality, especially in a country where we’re not in the habit of obeying the law.” He proposed to “drop the term ‘state nationality policy’ when discussing interethnic problems.”

Several other academics, in particular Emil Pain, have advocated giving primacy to civil rights and equal treatment for all nationalities. The director of the Institute of Ethnology, Valery Tishkov, is dubious about the applicability of the category nationstate to Russia, warning against those who favor “eliminating ethnocultural commonalities in order to create a monocultural state.”

Tishkov’s concept of a people-based state (a demosstate rather than nation-state) with some overarching all-Russian [Rossyskoi] identity (as opposed to ethnic Russian, or Russky, identity) does not take into account the danger that in Russia the denial of nationality as a valid category may open the door to latent chauvinism and new interethnic problems.

Meanwhile, government officials have already been spelling out the main parameters of the new policy. Minister Zorin’s main conclusion in a November newspaper article was this: “Most experts today consider that our earlier approach… no longer meets the current challenges. The policy needs to be amended. And many specialists have a very specific idea of the direction these amendments should take: to recognize and strengthen the role both of the Russians as the country’s ‘state-forming’ people, and of Orthodoxy as the dominant religion.”

At the same time Zorin pretends that national aspirations can find constitutional outlets in Russia. Thus, during a visit to Canada last November, he stated in an interview with BBC that “separatism is a politically established movement. In Quebec, the Partie Quebecois has deputies in parliament pushing theidea of the province’s independence—admittedly with dwindling success. There is nothing even remotely like it in Chechnya.”

But the convention signed in 2001 by the Russian president and the other leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization gives a different definition: “Separatism is any activity that aims to destroy the territorial integrity of a state, including the separation from it of any part of its territory, or the disintegration of the state by violent means, and also the planning and preparation of any such activity, complicity in its execution or incitement to it.”

Russian politicians apply various standards depending on their audience, shamelessly putting “the right of a nation to self-determination” into the category of separatism or extremism, disregarding international agreements and obligations.

Thus Zorin also said: “In general, the situation in Chechnya is more like Ulster than Quebec. Terrorists cannot be considered as participants in the political process.” Except that Ulster is a policing operation, with no aircraft or artillery carrying out missile and bomb attacks on towns and villages, no “cleansing” operations, and no people disappearing. And what is more, a complex negotiating process is going on. Yet Russian politicians continue to insist that the war must be fought “to the final victory,” even to the extent of threatening neighboring states.

Russia has her own, often arbitrary, definitions of terrorists and criminals. The Budanov affair [the only senior Russian officer to go on trial for crimes against civilians in Chechnya] has turned into a farce, with his acquittal. And how many more Budanovs are still out there? In Chechnya, many of Moscow’s allies are men with dubious pasts—notorious extremists,embezzlers or slavetraders—who have successfully (under orders, perhaps?) undergone a process of reincarnation.

Sound bites from the new nationality policy are striking in their simplicity and frankness. Here is Vladimir Zorin: “I foresee that Chechnya will not be given any ‘special status’ within the Russian Federation: This is not even under discussion at present. At the end of 2003 or in early 2004 elections will be held there and the new authorities will sign agreements with Moscow on the distribution of power that will make nonsense of the very notion of separatism.”

The aim of the government line is to create a unitary state: “as far as possible, we will gradually move, so to speak, from ethnic-administrative subdivision of the country to a nonterritorial model. What this means is that if you are a Tatar, you should have the right to lead a full national-cultural life anywhere in Russia, not just in Tatarstan.”

Addressing the possibility that the people of Chechnya might reject the planned distribution of power between Moscow and the republic, Zorin said: “Forgive me, but in Russia there are only six subjects of the federation in which the titular nationality is in the majority; and Chechnya isn’t one of them!” What’s important here is not so much the minister’s provocative inaccuracy (even in the 1989 census, Chechens formed an overall majority in Chechnya-Ingushetia), as his attempt to undermine the basis of federalism by discrediting national formations on the grounds that they discriminate against the interests of the majority.

Such “creative” efforts are intended to achieve the effective erosion of every aspect of the nationality issue in Russia. The census now contains a register of individual national groups, such as the Kreshens [Christian Tatars], which raised protests in Tatar society. And how did the authorities respond? “We need a debate on the ethnic groups that exist within the larger national peoples—the Cossacks and Pomors amongst the Russians, the Kreshens amongst the Tatars and the Teptyars amongst the Udmurts.”

The reference to the Cossacks and Pomors amongst the Russians is misleading. They all share a common faith and, in any case, are still Russians, the pulling power of a strong nation being incomparably greater than that of a small one. But with the Tatars and Kreshens the situation is more serious, since they profess different faiths. If you count the Kreshens as a distinct part of the Tatar people, and Moscow then becomes involved in resolving the inevitable arguments on economic, personnel and territorial issues—soon there will cease to be a distinct Tatar ethnic group. This would, in essence, amount to a provocation on the lines of “divide and rule.”

The government is also under pressure from the State Duma, which has drawn up draft bills on the “Russian people” and on the foundations of the state’s nationality policy. In November 2002, both chambers of the Federal Assembly approved a law that requires official languages in the republics to use alphabets based on the Cyrillic script. This decision has already raised protests in Tatarstan and Karelia.

How should we interpret the term “state-forming people,” and where does this leave the other peoples who have lived for thousands of years on this soil? And if administrative measures can be used to strengthen the role of some, they can therefore also diminish the role of others. Bolshevism is not dead: First there was the notion of Russia as the “Older Brother,” now it’s the “state-forming people.”

Surprisingly, official plans for nationality policy are picking up the terminology and ideas of radical nationalist authors and organizations. In the right wing/ nationalist journal Russkii Dom, A. Savelev writes: “The risk of a war like that in Chechnya awaits us at every step we take to reunify the Russian world…. The risk of war is tied to aggressive “pan-Turkic” plans already having a considerable effect on the whole of the North Caucasus, Tataria, Bashkiria and other ‘internal’ republics in Russia. If we don’t respond with a large-scale mobilization of the Russian population, as our state-forming nucleus, we can expect a long drawn out war on our own territory…. The key to Russia’s victory in this war is a crusading army: 100 million citizens with military training, a 10 million-strong national guard and a mobile army of a million. Victory means being ready at any moment to use our nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic…. The Russian world faces a choice between oblivion and a profound reassessment of its values. The latter assumes the rejection of liberal principles that are alien to Russian interests (in both their Soviet and their ‘democratic’ guises) and a return to the traditional values of Orthodox civilization, which must be applied to today’s problems.” [Russkii Dom, no 5, 2001, p. 9, no. 8, 2001, p. 44-5]

Here, in essence, are the clichés that have begun to appear in official statements: the Russian people regarded as the “stateforming nucleus,” the Russian Orthodox civilization and the national guard. Everything, in fact, that the authorities are now talking about— in almost exactly these terms—and are already turning into reality. And, absorbing all this, people are now changing their “complacent attitude to traitors (the media)”!

The overwhelming xenophobia developing in Russia is damaging to society and the state. We see an endless categorizing of nationalities and peoples; periodic calls for a redrawing of borders, to replace the national territories with a uniform federation, to punish certain peoples or carry out missile attacks on them; the scorn with which people talk of other nationalities and cultures, and so on.

In Russia, a great deal—nationality policy included—hinges on the president. Given his high confidence rating with the public, Putin is undoubtedly capable of giving impetus to the development of an open, democratic society. But he is still directing his efforts towards strengthening his authority (authority strengthening itself!), and reinforcing the position of the armed forces, the special services and the bureaucracy. He is becoming a hostage to the ‘party of war,’ with their ‘personal war,’ crude xenophobic rhetoric and their appeal to people’s baser sentiments.

Zaindi Choltaev is currently the Galina Starovoitova fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington DC. In 1992 he was deputy foreign minister of the Chechen Republic, and in 1994-95 chair of the administration of the Provisional State Council. In 1996 he resigned from the Chechen government.