Calls For Russia’s Liberals To Reclaim Nationality Issue From Radicals

Russia’s liberals have ceded issues like migration and the violence in the North Caucasus to the nationalists by failing to address them openly and honestly and to offer programs for their resolution, a shortcoming that has helped to marginalize the liberals in Russia and give the nationalists an undeserved victory, a liberal commentator says.

In a commentary in “Gazeta” this week, Vladimir Milov, the head of the Democratic Choice Movement and of the Institute of Energy Policy, argues that the Manezh Square violence must become “a serious occasion” for re-assessing “the influence and role of nationalism and the factor of inter-ethnic relations in Russian politics (www.gazeta.ru/column/milov/3470929.shtml).

Among those who need to address these issues most attentively are Russia’s liberals, a group that Milov argues has generally failed to do so up to now, especially because as “many have justly noted,” the recent events represent the bursting to the surface of problems that have been building up for some time.

Milov notes that the last decade of “stormy economic growth” has been accompanied by “an unprecedented flow of immigrants into the major cities” both from Central Asia and the Caucasus and the exploitation of these workers almost as “slave labor,” without “the necessary social guarantees” or even “the normal conditions of life.”

“It is clear to a child,” Milov continues, that such rapid developments mean not only that the new arrivals will poorly adapt themselves to “the traditional way of life” of longtime residents but also will behave in ways that will create “a direct path to major conflicts in society.”

The warning signs have all been there, “from the events in Kondopoga to surveys of public opinion which consistently showed that the issue of dissatisfaction with the new arrivals was one of the main problems agitating Russians. But now this problem has begun to break out in the form of open large-scale revolts in the heart of Moscow.”

It would thus be a mistake, Milov says, to think that these “revolts are exclusively the result of some sort of clever provocation.” They reflect “the consistently growing popularity of the actions of the nationalist opposition” which is gaining support precisely because it addresses the problems on the minds of Russians.

“It would also be the most profound mistake,” the liberal writer and activist continues, “to deny the presence of fundamental problems in migration and inter-ethnic sphere, laying all the responsibility on the primitive xenophobic instincts of the population and ‘the fascists’ who incited the disorders.”

“Yes, there were fascists at the Manezh. But the nationalist slogans would never have been so popular were there not real problems under them,” Milov adds. “And alas, the only political force which in a consistent manner raises questions about inter-ethnic relations and migrants has consisted of the nationalists.”

“Among representatives of the liberal camp and establishment, it is considered shameful to speak about them,” Milov continues. Russian liberals have limited themselves to comments like “crime does not have a nationality” – even when “frequently it has one,” he suggests – or insist that “any nationalist is by definition a fascist.”

Such attitudes help to explain why and how Russian liberals over the last 20 years “have lost the national order of the day” to the nationalists. And they help to explain why Russian developments have been so different than those in Eastern Europe of the end of the 1980s when liberalism and nationalism worked together rather than being at loggerheads.

Moreover, “the fact that the national component was completely lost in the Russian liberal movement and replaced by ‘an all human one’ and that liberals entirely ceded national discourse to the supporters of power and the nationalists has made an enormous contribution to the failures of the liberal project in Russia over the last 20 years.”

By failing to address ethnic issues and to understand that nationalism is not invariably an enemy of liberalism, Russia’s liberals’ have allowed their enemies to present them not as a reasonable part of the Russian political spectrum but rather as a kind of “fifth column” working against Russia as such.

The consequences of all this are becoming increasingly serious because many Russian nationalists now reject the idea that Russians are Europeans and instead want to pursue a Eurasian or even Asiatic course of development, turning the country away from its natural home in Europe and shutting off the kind of progress links with Europe make possible.

“In fact,” Milov says, “the denial by the derzhavniki of the European project of the development of Russia in favor of a ‘Eurasian’ one is nothing but a banal cover for surrendering Russian interests to China and to countries of the Islamic world,” something that the liberals should and must be talking about but have feared to do so up to now.

“As a result, a paradoxical situation has emerged [in Russia]: While liberal modernization in Easstern Europe has drawn on a powerful support of nationalist forces, [among Russians] these forces are sharply split,” to the point that they are fighting one another rather than helping to promote a common goal.

There are, of course, “objective causes” for this, Milov says. “Historically” Russian nationalists arose out of black hundreds elements who “had little in common with the liberals. But this history is ever more receding into the past.” And now, “the key question is cultural self-definition, are we Europeans or Asians.”

Russian liberals need to re-engage with the nationality issues of their country. They need to propose “effective solutions in the areas of migration policy and inter-ethnic relations and not deny these problems” by retreating into hysteria about how all statements in these areas are nothing but “xenophobia.”

Russia’s liberals need to come up with programs for “the social-cultural adaptation and socialization of migrants” and “the de-criminalization of the migrant milieu and the struggle with ethnic criminal groups.” And they need to come up with a serious policy of dealing with the North Caucasus, lest its problems become the problems of all of Russia.

In short, Milov concludes, Russia’s liberqals must come up with “a liberal national project for Russia directed at the strengthening of the cultural self-identificaiton of Russians as Europeans and not as anything else.” That means engaging the nationalists on their own grounds, a step liberals must take “if we do not want to have a Manezh the size of the entire country.”


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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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