Russian Researchers Say Country on the Brink of National Crisis

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 18

On September 19, the Russian polling organization Politekh unveiled its report on inter-ethnic relations in Russia at the Russian Public Chamber. The report detailed a spectacular rise of ethnic nationalism among ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups. The researchers warned that polarization may have serious consequences for the future of the country. The North Caucasus is the most prominent cause of the ethnic cleavages in Russia, according to the researchers. Public Chamber member Alla Gerber told the newspaper Kommersant (September 19): “The country is divided into two parts—the Russian Federation and the North Caucasus, which lives according to its own laws, while nationalism flourishes in the central part of the country.” According to the survey, some Russian republics already can be called Islamic, while 37 percent of ethnic Russians feel they are “humiliated” in their own country. Quite revealingly, the feeling of humiliation is more widespread among ethnic Russians in the central parts of the country—46 percent of those polled in Moscow and St. Petersburg indicated this—than among ethnic Russians who actually live in the North Caucasus (42 percent). Another surprising finding was that 54 percent of ethnic Russians said they supported the idea of restoring the nationality category in Russian internal passports, while only 51 percent of the country’s general population said they supported the idea (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2282356).

The rise of ethnic nationalism is not a new phenomenon in Russia, but it has attracted much attention in the Russian government and media. Speaking at the annual Valdai Club meeting on September 19, President Vladimir Putin recognized that Russia needed to reinvent its identity because neither Imperial Russian nor Soviet nor Western “ultraliberal” ideology suited Russia (http://kremlin.ru/news/19243). While the Russian government has been strenuously reinventing the “Russian national idea” for the past 20 years or so, Russian citizens have already defined what the national idea is for them. According to rights activist Valery Engel, a 2012 a poll showed that about half of the country’s population supported a complete ban on immigration, including migration inside the country. Only 1 percent supported the idea of separating the North Caucasus from Russia. “The majority of the population is not prepared to give up its territories, but at the same time, people are not prepared to support equality for all [residents] who live in the same country,” Engel said. The activist predicted that if the republics of the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga region were to secede from Russia, it would cause a civil war (http://www.svoboda.org/content/transcript/25112175.html).

In the meantime, there is very little reliable survey data on how Russians actually feel about separating the North Caucasus from the Russian Federation. A 2010 poll by the Novy Region website found that over 73 percent of the respondents were in favor of separating Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia from Russia (http://www.nr2.ru/moskow/314486.html). Russian nationalists even created a special website that allows people to vote for separating the North Caucasus from Russia. So far, 78 percent have voted in favor of separation and 22 percent against it (http://goodbyekavkaz.org). On the other hand, the poll conducted by Politekh found 26 percent of the respondents in favor and 66 percent against the separation of some Russian regions from the Russian Federation. Again, the idea of separating some regions of Russia garnered the largest support in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where 32 percent were in favor and 58 percent against. While there seems to be fairly substantial support for the unity of the country, the issue may be more complicated. The problem may be how the Politekh pollsters asked the question: “Some politicians say that Russia should separate some regions and give them full independence. Do you agree with such an opinion or not?” (http://www.sova-center.ru/files/xeno/politeh-13.pdf). Even though the North Caucasus is implied as the region to be separated, it is not openly stated. So some respondents may have answered “no” because they thought the researchers meant regions other than those in the North Caucasus.

Bewilderingly, Politekh’s researchers say the desire of ethnic Russians to manifest their ethnicity is a “reaction to the demonstrative emphasis on ethnicity by other ethnic groups.” Thus, it would appear that the bias against non-Russian ethnic groups in Russia is apparently so high that it has profoundly affected even academic circles in the country. It is otherwise hard to explain how small ethnic minorities in Russia could be held responsible for ethnic Russians turning to ethnic nationalism. In fact, the Politekh poll provides some confirmation that ethnic nationalism is significantly more profound among ethnic Russians than among ethnic non-Russians. In Russia’s central regions, 55 percent of respondents said they would vote for a candidate of their own ethnic group, i.e. ethnic Russian. In the republics of the North Caucasus, the maximum percentage of those who would vote for a candidate based on ethnicity was in Chechnya, where it was 39 percent. In central Russia, 49 percent of ethnic Russian respondents supported voting for a political party that represents certain ethnic groups, while only 39 percent of the ethnic non-Russian respondents in the North Caucasus supported this. Rather, religious identity appears to play a stronger role. In most of the republics in Russia with Muslim majority populations, 44–49 percent of the respondents said they would vote for an Islamic party. That percentage rose to 68 percent in Ingushetia and Chechnya. Meanwhile, 53 percent of ethnic Russians said they would vote for an Orthodox Christian party (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2282356).

The Politekh survey has some questionable polling techniques, such as telephone interviewing, presumably by ethnic Russians. Still, it represents a little-known new side of Russia as a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Given how the poll was conducted, it was more likely to receive accurate results in ethnic Russian regions than in ethnic non-Russian regions. The remarkable general conclusion of the poll is that ethnic Russians, especially those, residing in the core centers of Russia—Moscow and St. Petersburg—are the most ardent supporters of separating the North Caucasus from the Russian Federation.