Moscow to Boost Protection of Russians Abroad and Make It Easier for Many to Return

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 156

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Yesterday (October 31), Russian President Vladimir Putin made two important but potentially contradictory and explosive promises. First, he told the Congress of Russian Compatriots that Moscow will increase its efforts to defend Russians living abroad, something that he hopes will lead to an expansion of the “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) but which will, in all likelihood, generate a sharply negative reaction among the peoples Russian expatriates live among (RIA Novosti, October 31). Second, he promulgated a new immigration strategy document governing the return of compatriots to Russia. This strategy could succeed at attracting more Russian immigration if these communities feel uncomfortable abroad and see Russia as a better option, but not if they become integrated in their adopted countries or do not view their prospects in Russia itself as better. Putin’s strategy could also create internal tensions in Russia if more non-ethnic Russians take advantage of the new rules than ethnic Russians do (,, October 31).

The Russian president’s two promises are thus potentially explosive both abroad and at home. Beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, they suggest Moscow is going to adopt an even tougher line than in the past against anything it views as discrimination against Russian speakers, including limitations on Russian-language schools and media. That may please some in Russia and perhaps some ethnic Russians in other countries, but it will have serious countervailing effects. For one thing, it will make it more difficult for ethnic Russians to be accepted by local majorities, to integrate into these countries, and to influence the policies of their governments. And it will prompt some to consider emigration back to Russia, thus reducing the size of the Russian World that Putin has always sought to promote.

But domestically, the consequences of this latest policy shift may be even more volatile. By suggesting that Putin is going to act even more forcefully in defense of his Russian World, these declarations may offend even more of the non-Russians at home who will view this as a further tilt toward the ethnic Russians and against them, regardless of what officials say. Additionally, it could change the ethnic balance in Russia itself, at least at the regional level, by allowing more non-Russians who have roots in Russia to return there than ethnic Russians. According to a Russian government estimate cited by The Moscow Times yesterday, there are now some 30 million “Russian compatriots” outside of Russia (The Moscow Times, October 31;, accessed November 1). Given that Moscow claims there are fewer than 18 million ethnic Russians there, this means more than ten million of the compatriots Putin is talking about are not ethnic Russians. That group includes prominently the Circassians, who have long wanted to return but so far have not been allowed to. If that changes, so too would the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus and potentially Russia as a whole.

Putin nonetheless seemed open to that possibility yesterday. He told the 400 delegates to the congress, all of whom were ethnic Russians (, October 31), that “you imagine one enormous Russian World that was never constructed exclusively and only on an ethnic, national and religious basis.” In fact, the Kremlin leader continued, “this world unites all who feel themselves spiritually connected with Russia and who consider themselves bearers of the Russian language, culture and Russian history” (TASS, October 31). Not all of those who heard him—nor all Russian nationalists for that matter—will have been pleased, because this is perhaps the clearest indication yet that, at least at the level of ideology, Putin has decided to plump for the non-ethnic identification of Russia (rossiisky) rather than the ethnic one (russky). That ostensibly semantic (yet politically and ideologically rooted) dispute has been the subject of debate for some time.

And such people will be even less pleased by Putin’s further insistence that he cannot fail to thank not only the Russian Orthodox Church for its support of compatriots abroad but also the efforts “of our other traditional confessions, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism” or by his explicit warning against politicizing the question of ethnicity. Doing so “in such a sensitive sphere always will entail the most serious consequences,” he said (TASS, October 31).

That Putin wants to attract more immigrants is entirely logical: Not only are far more Russians and especially the young and the educated leaving the country than returning, but the natural rate of population change is becoming increasingly negative (,, October 29). That said, it is far from clear that his regime has created a situation potential immigrants will find attractive, despite claims that 800,000 have returned to Russia since he became president. In fact, almost all of those are from Central Asia or the Caucasus, and most of them are either elderly or unskilled, not the kind of people Putin wants and Russia needs. Indeed, there is every reason to think that this latest Putin document will not have the consequences he hopes for and may create more problems, either by opening the way for non-Russians to return as “compatriots” or by highlighting the Kremlin’s generally Russocentric approach when Moscow blocks them. Indeed, while the new document promises a more open approach to immigration, it contains enough exceptions that it may not work at all (, October 31). To the extent that is true, Putin’s two latest actions are likely to end—as so many others before them—with high hopes followed by more problems and then a return to his earlier policies.