Russian President Vladimir Putin is putting in place a new approach to nationality issues within the Russian Federation, one that not only represents a departure from the first 16 years of his time in power, but also is likely to fail spectacularly and force him to change course yet again, or face the possibility of the collapse of the Russian Federation. First, after disbanding the Russian ministry for nationality affairs in 2001, at the start of his time in power, Putin is reconstituting it in all but name. Second, after relying on divide-and-rule imperial politics to control the situation in the North Caucasus and elsewhere, he is promoting a new vision of national unity, one based on downplaying ethnic differences and predicated on unceasing hostility toward the outside world. And third, after using the carrots and sticks of massive state assistance and brutal displays of force to quiet restive parts of his empire, Putin, who now has fewer of either, has decided to rely instead on the constant rotation of cadres at the level of federal subjects. He is confident that even without resources from the center, his bureaucrats’ fear of losing their jobs will be sufficient to force them to control the situation.
In part, Putin has made these changes because he no longer has the resources to make the old arrangements work. But in larger part, he has done so out of hubris, a conviction that he has already succeeded in transforming the Russian Federation into a unified society as a result of his forceful foreign policy and that “the nationality question,” as Russians typically refer to ethnic issues in their country, has thus been solved. He could not be more wrong as an examination of each of these three developments shows.
First, in restoring a nationalities ministry—currently in the form of the Federal Agency for Nationalities Affairs, but soon to become again a full-fledged ministry, according to rumor—and by putting security service veteran Igor Barinov in charge of it, Putin has forgotten the fundamental problem that plagued all such institutions in the past and that he has in no way to overcome. If a nationalities ministry is to be effective, it must have enormous power, because nationalities issues affect almost everything. If it is given such power, it will be in a position to cause enormous problems for all the other government institutions, just as Stalin did at the dawn of Soviet times when he was in charge of the Peoples Commissariat for Nationality Affairs. If it is not, as was the case with the various Russian ministers for nationality affairs under Boris Yeltsin, it will be irrelevant or at best an irritant.
Barinov is very ambitious. He has been outspoken on a variety of issues, including the two discussed below. And Putin appears ready to give his agency powers far larger than any of his predecessors have had. (See Anton Bykov’s discussion of what is likely to happen in the coming month at Polit.ru, November 28). If Putin goes ahead with this, he will create a monster, one that will spark fights within the government bureaucracy and even represent, as in the case of the current debate about creating a civic Russian nation, a threat to himself (Window on Eurasia, December 4). If Putin backs down from that, he will have suffered an obvious political defeat with all that means in the Russian context.
Second, Putin until very recently has been a classic divide-and-rule politician. He came to power by launching the second Chechen war and he has exploited ethnic divisions to allow himself to play the arbiter of fights among various nationalities, sometimes directing animosity toward “persons of Caucasian nationality” and more often toward immigrants. That has served him well even if it has had serious negative consequences for Russian society. Now, however, in the wake of his illegal annexation of Crimea and its acclamation by many in Russian society, the Kremlin leader has decided to shift from divide-and-rule to the celebration of a new unity in Russia by promoting the idea of a civic Russian “nation,” in which all residents of the Russian Federation are to be full participants.
As the Russian publications Kommersant and Kommersant-Vlast have pointed out, however, that idea has not unified Russians and non-Russians, but rather exacerbated differences between and among them (Kommersant.ru, December 5; Kommersant-Vlast, December 5; for a discussion of how serious these divides are becoming, see Window on Eurasia, December 5). There are indications that some Russian officials, including even Barinov, are deserting Putin as a result, certainly giving the Kremlin leader another black eye and making both ethnic Russians and non-Russians more suspicious about him and his plans.
And third, because he no longer has sufficient funds to buy off leaders of the non-Russian republics and must increasingly choose who gets less, and because he also has fewer coercive resources to use at home, Putin lacks the means for the carrots and sticks policy that had kept people like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov in line. That is already leading to conflicts among these leaders—for the moment, Kadyrov has won and kept his subsidies, but it also means that many are not getting them (Snob.ru, December 5; Rufabula.com, December 5). As a result, Moscow may be compelled to try to use more force to control the situation, but for the moment Putin hopes he can press the governors to take action on their own. That carries with it a double danger. If they do not succeed, Russia’s territorial integrity could be threatened by chaos; if they do, it could encourage secession by people who no longer see much need for Moscow.
These risks have sparked discussions in the Russian media about the dangers ahead. Some of them are serious and thoughtful, like the one published in the November issue of Zvezda Magazine (Zvezda), while many are more extreme and heavy-handed in their approach (Versia.ru, December 5). But all of them make clear that Putin with his new approach has not come up with a solution, but rather has, if anything, made Russia’s problems in this sphere far worse.