Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 1

Who’s in Charge of Moscow’s Nationality Policy?

The Russian Federation Needs a New Nationalities Policy

by Mikhail Guboglo
Deputy Director, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
Russian Academy of Sciences

Russia’s post-communist leaders do not include a single Moses capable of leading his people out of the dark labyrinths of ethnic exclusiveness onto the bright road of interethnic solidarity. More to the point, the state itself may be incapable of finding this way out. Tthe more that the fires of ethnic conflict flare on Russia’s periphery, the more absurd are the continuing struggles among Moscow bureaucrats for a control over all decisions affecting this incurably politicized ethnicity.

Unfortunately, present-day Russia has neither a theory nor a conception nor a legal basis nor a reliable mechanism for carrying out any nationality policy that might be adopted. More than that, no one today seems prepared to answer the apparently naive question of whether Russia even needs a nationality policy. And if it does, whether this policy should be the domain of a single ministry, the object of the attention of subdivisions within a variety of ministries–from the "force" ministries to health and agriculture and education, or of society as a whole..

Unexpectedly, I was caught up in this bureaucratic struggle when I was invited in December 1994 to review for the State Duma a draft law "On National-Cultural Autonomy" that had been prepared by the Ministry for Nationality Affairs and REgional Policy. But this review never took place. Instead, a new draft law was born, this time with the title "On the national-cultural organizations of citizens. In contrast to its predecessor, the new draft was not addressed to "the peoples, national and ethnic groups, and national minorities" of the country but rather to all citizens of Russia regardless of their nationality or language.

The total lack of correspondence between these two drafts calls for comment because it touches on the general problem of Russian nationality policy. One of the underlying problems in the search for a nationalities policy is that many begin with the mistaken idea that present-day interethnic relations in Russia are in crisis. Another is in the absurd goal of establishing "complete equality" among the various peoples of the country. Both of these errors have their roots in the disappointment many feel as a result of the not entirely favorable conditions and consequences of the development of nationalities before and after perestroika and also by the very real crisis in the theory and practice of nationality policy at the present time.

Poll data support this conclusion. For example, ethnosociological surveys conducted in 1993-94 by the Moscow Center for the Study of Interethnic Relations jointly with American univities revealed that people who belong to different national groups are far more tolerant of one another than politicians typically assume. 81.4% of the Bashkirs, 79.0% of the Tatars and 67.9% of the Kazakhs in the cities of their titular nationality state formations did not think it was necessary to ask Russians to learn their languages as a precondition for citizenship, while Russians on the other hand–62.7% in Bashkortostan, 76.5% in Tatarstan and 80.2% in Kazakhstan agreed that residents of Kazakhstan and the republics of Russia ought to master the language of the republic within which they live.

The constant reshuffling of the executive agency responsible for nationality policy–first it was called the State Committee for Nationality Policy (Goskomnats), then it was named the State Committee for the Affairs of the Federation and Nationalities (Goskomfederatsiya), and finally it took the name the Ministry for the Affairs of Nationalities and Regional Policy (Minnats)–is still more evidence of the crisis in nationality policy. And a new policy is clearly needed.

Because of the unequal distribution of natural resources among Russia’s regions, the existing differences in economic and social development will only increase. and hae given rise to fears that might become a catalyst for regional and national separatism. Some in the bureaucracy even believe that the only way to prevent such an outcome is to seek "factual equality" among the ethnic communities of Russia. It is difficult to think of anything more absurd. Such an approach would appear to require laws mandating absolute equality and the creation of conditions for such equality among the peoples of Russia–regardless of size and current status.In fact, it is hardly desireable to make this utopian idea a goal given the variations among these groups by size, location, urbanization, ethnic mixture, economic possibilities, and age structure.

The search for a way out of this dilemma began in Soviet times with the adoption in April 1990 of a law "On the Free National Development of Citizens of the USSR Living Beyond the Borders of Their State National-State Formations ofr Not Having Such Territories in the USSR." Although this law did not have any practical consequences, it did play a positive role in freeing scholars and politicians from certain prejudices against national minorities and in allowing for the posibility of establishing a special status not linked to the local statehood.

The draft law "On National-Cultural Autonomy" mentioned above is the direct successor to that document. The difficulties with the draft was that it sought to combine two incompatible ideas. On the one hand, the Ministry for Nationality Affairs and Regional Policy tried to expand the "state" quality of nationality policy; on the other, the draft attempted to present the structures of national autonomy, organized from above and controlled by the state as a path to the liberation of these communities from state supervision.

In contrast to the Ministry’s push for state intervention, others, including both scholars and politicians, were pushing for taking nationality issues away from the state entirely. Their ideas reflected a desire to democratize society. An important condition for ending the government’s monopoly in this field is a complete change in the relationship of the state and society to the ethnic aspect of life. Here, one is talking primarily about a widening of the space for the manifestation of ethnicity,a widening that would be supported by society without enjoying the "defense" of the state. But unfortunately those who wanted to get the state out of the nationalities business failed to understand what that would mean. The draft itself simply papered over the disagreement rather than resolved it.

A legal code guaranteeing free choice in the realms of nationality, language, and association would not lead to anarchy but to a democratic order and the construction of a civilized society and would represent an effective defense from the threat of tyranny both of one group over another and within any particular group. It would leave the individual citizen rather than the group member at the basis of the state and society, and it would help undermine the currently fashionable notion that there must be a state for every nation. And that in turn would contribute to stability on a democratic basis.

To realize this goal, the Constitution must be amended to allow for the emergence of constitutionally protected national-cultural organizations independent of a particular ethnic autonomy. Further, the state must show more trust in the citizens of Russia. But for that to happen, new ideas are needed. And at the present time, they do not exist But they will only emerge if politicians as well as scholars recognize that society rather than the state must be their principal author.