Kremlin’s Nationalities Policy Likely Driven by Fear of Uncontrolled Russian Nationalism

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 12

On June 7, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree creating the Presidential Council for Relations between Nationalities. The council’s statute stipulates its role as a consultative governmental body to help implement government nationalities policy. The council will have no direct administrative power, but its decisions could be implemented through presidential decrees. Putin himself is head of the council, while several other key Russian officials, such as the first deputy head of the presidential administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, and Deputy Prime Minister Kozak are Putin’s deputies on the Council. The council has 50 members, including the leaders of Russian nationalist organizations, such as Aleksei Zhuravlyov of the Rodina organization, which had been led by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the outspoken Russian nationalist who oversees the defense industry. At the same time, the North Caucasian ethnicities are represented only by several obscure figures (http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/15577, June 7).

It has long been rumored that the ministry for nationalities would be revived, but the Russian government opted for the council – a less formal and probably less resourceful institution. The last Ministry for Nationalities Policy was abolished in 2001. The return of ethnic politics prompted Moscow to create some semblance of a government institution to govern this realm. Although rocky relations between the North Caucasian peoples and ethnic Russians figure most prominently in the Russian news, North Caucasians were mainly kept off the newly created government council.

In fact, some Russian analysts have discerned “a clear bias in favor of the Great Russian nation [ethnic Russians]” on the council. Russian political analyst Boris Makarenko said that Vladimir Putin indicated a “slight inclination toward Great Russian nation chauvinism” in his electoral article on the “state building role” of ethnic Russians and plans to toughen immigration rules. “If the council emphasizes the leadership of the [ethnic] Russian nation, nothing good will come out it,” Makarenko said. One of the liberal-leaning members of the council, journalist Nikolai Svanidze, said that members of the council “will unlikely come to a consensus” on ethnic relations in the Russian Federation (http://kommersant.ru/doc/1953659, June 8).

The establishment of a government council on ethnic policy that does not include significant figures from the North Caucasus is another missed opportunity for the Russian government in the region. Potentially, the inclusion of important figures from the North Caucasus on the council could have given the peoples of that region a sense – perhaps illusory – of being represented on the federal level. By giving the North Caucasus representation, Moscow might not only have co-opted some of the elites in the region who feel disenfranchised in Russia, but also might have convinced the larger population of the region that it was included in the country’s political system. The fact that the Russian government decided to turn a blind eye to the North Caucasians’ aspirations indicates that either Moscow is not serious about integrating the region into the contemporary Russian state or does not regard the situation in the North Caucasus as a severe challenge that would justify such concessions. The latter does not seem likely since the very establishment of the Council for Nationalities Relations is in a way a response to the growing problem of conflicts between ethnic North Caucasians and ethnic Russians.

The explanation for this puzzle may be simple. The difference between the 1990s, when the Russian government created the Ministry for Nationalities, and now is that in the 1990s Moscow tried to appease and accommodate the interests of the ethnic minorities. Now the Russian government appears to be focused on accommodating and controlling ethnic Russian nationalism, which is on the rise. Apparently, the government deems ethnic Russian nationalism as a much more important trend to control than instability in the North Caucasus. However, the disenfranchised North Caucasus is unlikely to cease causing trouble for the Russian authorities.

On June 5, yet another scandalous incident between Chechen and Russian youth took place in Moscow. Two groups of young people wielding knives and guns clashed, and several participants received injuries and were hospitalized. Bekhan Rizvanov a student at a Moscow university who is an ethnic Chechen, was accused of being the primary perpetrator of the attack and taken into custody. Another suspect, Magomed Eldiev, escaped and was put on the police wanted list. After members of an OMON special police unit arrived at the university on June 8 to help interrogate witnesses to the clash, they were attacked by Chechen students (http://www.izvestia.ru/news/527103, June 9). According to other accounts, the police beat up the Chechen students (http://rusnovosti.ru/news/206808/, June 8). The university eventually had to release 40 students from Chechnya for an early “summer break,” but promised not to expel them (http://www.izvestia.ru/news/527103, June 9). According to Russian nationalist accounts, the Chechens attacked the Russians with cries: “Let’s slash the Russian pigs!” (http://www.apn.ru/news/article26754.htm, June 8). Other sources said that the Chechens at the university hailed and celebrated terrorist attacks, such as the attack at Domodedovo airport in January 2011 (http://rusnovosti.ru/news/206808/, June 8). The conflict between ethnic Russians and ethnic Chechens is so pervasive that none of these allegations seems to be overly fictitious. Although the large-scale war between Russia and Chechnya has ended, reconciliation has evidently not taken place.

It is unclear whether the Council for Nationalities Relations will be a political or an expert body. Its first meeting took place in St. Petersburg on June 9. Only several of its 50 members attended, and President Putin announced during the meeting what its tasks would be (http://news.kremlin.ru/video/1206, June 9).

If that is the way the new council will work in the future, it will probably be little more than a department for rubber-stamping presidential decrees. Still, the very fact that such a council has been created, and its personnel makeup, point to the Russian government’s current priorities. Moscow is apparently most concerned currently about the rise of Russian nationalism. However, through greater accommodation of Russian nationalism, which is what the government appears to be striving for, there is likely to be a greater estrangement of ethnic minorities, particularly in the North Caucasus.