On July 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of the presidential council for interethnic relations, which he began by stating that the focus of the meeting would be improving his government’s interethnic policies. “It is important for youth to understand the significance of the nationalities’ policy,” he said. “Diversity is the strength and the advantage of our country, which has absorbed various traditions, cultures and ethnic groups for centuries. Through this mutual enrichment, our vast country has evolved and strengthened its identity.” Following this introduction, Putin again attacked unnamed foreign forces, which he said were provoking ethnic conflicts in Russia to prevent the country’s development, and proposed countering the malevolent forces abroad through “systemic work by the government, municipal authorities, civil organizations and families” (Kremlin.ru, July 3).
The Russian Federation has indeed experienced regular ethnic clashes for a number of years, most of which were pogroms by ethnic Russians after incidents that involved ethnic non-Russians, often North Caucasians. The expectation, therefore, was that Putin would try to soften the internal problems in Russia—especially the rift between ethnic Russians and people of North Caucasus origin. However, the meeting of the presidential council for interethnic relations took a very different turn, one likely to increase rather than decrease tensions in the country.
Although Putin proposed creating a unified system for monitoring interethnic relations and preventing possible ethnic conflicts, the main focus of the meeting appeared to be on increasing the role of Russian language in schools and beyond. This implicitly means that the expansion of the Russian language will proceed at the expense of the languages of ethnic minorities, which are in a dire condition anyway. Immediately after Putin’s speech, Russia’s notorious culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, stated at the meeting: “We are convinced that the ratio between the Russian language and the regional languages should unequivocally be in favor of the Russian language. We ask you ardently to give corresponding orders to the ministry of education, because if it is not done [giving priority to the Russian language], then what culture can we have?! All our efforts will be in vain” (Kremlin.ru, July 3).
Another proponent of expanding the Russian language’s role, State Duma Committee for Nationalities’ Affairs Chairman Gajimet Safaraliev, urged Putin to intensify Russian language studies. Safaraliev recalled that the Russian language was “a mighty state-building factor, the basis of civil identity” in the USSR. He failed to mention, however, that non-Russian citizens of the USSR often resented the imposition of the Russian language in their territories, which may have contributed to the final disintegration of the country in 1991 (Kremlin.ru, July 3).
With the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comment that Putin was living in “another world,” it has become common to regard Vladimir Putin as someone, whose worldview was distorted by his past experience in the Soviet security services. However, Putin’s latest remarks about enemies abroad stirring interethnic strife in Russia indicate that he uses various rhetorical tools to achieve political ends, but does not necessarily believe what he says. The Russian security services have been accused of having ties to many Russian nationalist groups. The latest confirmation of the ties between the Russian nationalist groups and the government in Moscow surfaced in Ukraine, where some Russian fascists turned up fighting against the “fascist regime” in Kyiv (Glavcom.ua, May 26).
It is unlikely that Putin is ignorant of his security services’ dealings with the Russian nationalists. Yet he asserts that unnamed foreign countries are stirring ethnic discord in the Russian Federation. The Russian president uses the specter of the foreign enemy image to create a rally-round-the-flag effect. In this particular case, Putin cannot possibly believe what he says. Therefore, Putin does not live in “a parallel world,” but rather pretends to do so whenever he feels it might benefit him.
The Russian president uses his primary ideological tool—Russian nationalism—highly instrumentally. The dismissal of the most prominent protagonist of the Russian Empire, Alexander Dugin, from his position at Moscow State University came as a surprise to many observers (Novaya Gazeta, June 27). Dugin has advocated for another iteration of the Russian Empire, rebranded under so-called Eurasianism. Putin’s Eurasian Union idea is primarily based on Dugin’s theoretical conjectures. During the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Dugin’s visibility increased further. At the same time, he also grew impatient with the Russian government’s reluctance to invade eastern Ukraine openly. In an interview with Russia’s Anna-News agency on May 6, Dugin called on the Russian government “to kill, to kill and to kill” the Ukrainians. Some Russian academics criticized Dugin and petitioned Moscow State University to dismiss him (Newsru.com, June 16).
It is unlikely, however, that his dismissal was the result of the petition, given how influential Dugin is. Rather, Dugin’s vociferousness put pressure on Putin that the Russian president did not want, which sealed the Russian academic’s fate. Thus Dugin was punished not for his bloodthirsty remarks, but for putting serious pressure on Putin in front of the domestic audience at a time when the Russian leader’s range of negotiating positions with Ukraine and the West was at its narrowest.
Having failed to grab the rest of neighboring Ukraine, the Russian president is taking aim at domestic targets, such as the country’s ethnic minorities. The North Caucasus nationalities have traditionally been the most targeted minorities in Russia and are likely to be next on the list of priorities for Putin after Ukraine. Moscow will again prioritize the North Caucasus as the weakest point in it security periphery and reinforce its integration with Russia by pursuing more aggressive assimilation policies.