Shifting Ethnic Balance in Sakha Sparks Russian Fears and Anger

By Paul Goble
In recent months, most discussions about the rise of xenophobia among ethnic Russians have focused on the impact of the influx of Central Asian and Caucasian guest workers into Moscow and other Russian cities. But there is another source of Russian xenophobia that is likely to have even more serious consequences for the stability and even territorial integrity of the Russian Federation: That is the shifting ethnic balance in many non-Russian republics where, 25 years ago, ethnic Russians had a majority or a least a plurality, but where now, they find themselves in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable position of a declining minority.
Nowhere has that demographic shift, one that reflects the aging and outflow of ethnic Russians and the higher fertility rates of the indigenous nationalities, been greater than in the North Caucasus, something that Russian and Western demographers have discussed especially in the case of Stavropol krai, where Russian xenophobic nationalism is very much on the rise. But the same pattern, with many of the same causes, is occurring elsewhere and creating serious problems for Moscow.
One rarely mentioned place where that is currently the case is Sakha, the enormous republic in the Russian Far East, which is the source of much of the Russian Federation’s natural wealth. In 1989, ethnic Russians formed 48 percent of the population, and Slavs a total of 57 percent, a reflection of Moscow’s dispatch of Russians to that republic to develop its mineral wealth. Now, according to the latest census (, Russians form only 38 percent and Slavs only a total of 40 percent, with the titular nationality having gone from being a minority in its own republic to a majority. Not surprisingly, this demographic shift has affected attitudes among both groups.
But because Sakha is so far away from Moscow and because the central Russian government does not want to promote more Russian flight from Sakha lest that undercut the ability of the center to extract resources or lead to nationalist demands, the all-Russian media seldom reports on these demography-driven changes. However, they have increasingly become the subject of stories on Russian social networks. Undoubtedly, many of these reports are exaggerated, but they point to some serious problems.
One recent example of this trend (see says that a visiting Russian Orthodox priest was greeted in one village in Sakha by Russians who shouted ‘The occupiers have come! People, they are occupying us!” a reference not to the priest or to the Russian state but to the Sakha people. “Unfortunately,” the post continues, this is anything but an exception to a pattern that, it claims, reflects the policy of the republic government, which is ignoring the rights of Russians while boosting those of the Sakha in order to build its own power.

Such tensions and such complaints by ethnic Russians who are seeing their dominance called into question recall what happened in many places at the end of Soviet times. And memories of what happened then undoubtedly add to Russian fears now.