On March 31, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recreating the Russian government agency for nationalities. The agency will implement state policy in the areas of ethnic and religious relations. In particular, the agency’s activities are aimed at “strengthening the unity of the multinational people of Russia.” The agency is expected to interact with cultural autonomies of various ethnic groups and to deal with the Cossacks (Kremlin, March 31). In a sign of the importance of the new agency, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev appointed the deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee, Igor Barinov, as its head (Kommersant, March 31).
According to President Putin, the primarily ethnic republics of the Russian Federation advocated for the return of such an agency to “help people on the ground to work together and with the center.” Prime Minister Medvedev said the agency would help resolve ethnic and religious conflicts that “periodically happen in such a large and complex country as ours” (Kremlin, March 31). The exact powers of the agency remain unclear and are likely to be fairly modest: Medvedev said the government would create a relatively small agency and observe how it functions.
A separate government agency for nationalities in Russia existed until 2001, when the Ministry for Nationalities Affairs was abolished, after which the man who then held that position, Vladimir Zoran became a minister without portfolio. In 2004, the newly created Ministry for Regional Development assumed responsibilities for nationalities affairs. In September 2014, the Ministry for Regional Development was abolished and nationalities affairs were handed over to the Ministry of Culture (Kommersant, March 13). Now, a special agency has been established to oversee nationalities policy.
The head of the new agency for nationalities, Igor Barinov, is an interesting figure. A 46-year-old former colonel of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Barinov served in the 103rd airborne division from 1990 to1992. In 1993, he joined the Sverdlovsk regional branch of the FSB Alfa combat force. By 1997, Barinov rose to the position of commander of the branch. Barinov took part in the wars in Chechnya and was wounded three times in action, which probably effectively ended his FSB career in 2003. Shortly thereafter, he joined the ruling United Russia party and became a politician (Ivbarinov.ru, accessed April 6).
The North Caucasus region is the most ethnically diverse part of the Russian Federation, and the new agency is likely to focus on this region. Appointing a security services veteran to such a position was not received quite well there. The leader of the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus, Aliya Totorkulov, told the Kavkazskaya Politika website: “I heard this news only half-an-hour ago and it came as a surprise to me since I had never heard of Barinov. We did not observe him in social movements, inter-ethnic affairs and other organizations. Perhaps working in the FSB taught him how to defend the homeland correctly and he is well informed on ethnic issues, but I would rather prefer a well-known and respected politician in Russia to have this position.” Totorkulov, however, added that it is better to have at least some nationalities agency than none. Valery Khatazhukov, a rights activist from Kabardino-Balkaria, expressed his disillusionment with the new agency and stated that until the people in the republics of the North Caucasus start choosing their own government and hold it accountable for its actions, no positive changes will come. Karachaevo-Cherkessia Minister for Nationalities Affairs and Mass Communications Yevgeny Kratov, on the contrary, praised the move, seeing it as an effort by Moscow to strengthen the country’s unity (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 1).
Russian commentators often omit the important symbolic meaning of a Russian agency for nationalities for ethnic minorities and for ethnic Russians. Russian experts usually fail to address the question of why the agency was abolished in 2001, why it did not return for about 14 years despite persistent talk about the need for it, and why it was revived now.
In the past, a central government agency dealing with ethnic groups in Russia emphasized the multiethnic and federal spirit of the Russian Federation. This was a somewhat important symbol of accommodation of ethnic diversity of the country and was generally supported by the ethnic minorities, specifically the North Caucasians, who have a strong sense of ethnic identity. For ethnic Russians, however, such an agency highlighted the weaker side of the Russian Federation—its multitude of ethnic groups. Russian politicians, whether affiliated with Putin’s regime or the liberal opposition, have seen ethnic diversity and Russia’s federal political structure as a Soviet legacy that could destroy the country along ethnic lines, like the Soviet Union. This explains why Putin’s government abolished the Ministry of Nationalities back in 2001 and did not restore it for some 14 years. The current move is a modest, purely symbolic step to appease the ethnic minorities of the Russian Federation, most notably the North Caucasians. Yet, the move may lay the groundwork for further attacks on the rights of the ethnic republics within Russia. A federal agency for nationalities affairs will give the North Caucasians a false sense of representation at the federal level, while the agency will be headed by a Russian security services officer with no interest in representing anyone apart from the Russian state. Putin’s move still indicates that he anticipates the central government’s ability to suppress dissent in the North Caucasus and to finance the region will decrease. Thus, the Kremlin made an effort to accommodate the interests of the North Caucasians while giving them essentially nothing, which is unlikely to satisfy anyone in the region.