Russian Nationality Policy Must Shift Focus From Republics To Cities – OpEd


Russian officials and scholars who work on nationality issues must shift from their traditional focus on the non-Russian republics to major urban centers where immigration and ethnic mixing require a new approach to the management of cultural diversity, according to Emil Pain, one of Moscow’s leading specialists on ethnic conflict.

In a 6,000-word article in the latest Druzhba Narodov, Pain argues that the latest nationality strategy document reflects the older conception and thus fails to address where most ethnic issues arise and the ways in which they intersect with other phenomena like religion and localism (

The Higher School of Economics scholar says that an analysis of urban conflicts between 2006 and 2013 shows that “outbursts of xenophobia and the negative consolidation of the urban population arising from social turbulence lead to rapid changes in the image of the enemy who can be ethnic, religious or politically ‘alien,’” a pattern the dominant paradigm doesn’t address

Moreover, Pain says, the situation regarding these clashes is quite different from similar ones in France or the US because Russian residents are not inclined to turn directly to state institutions in which they have little trust but rather the crowd seeks to impose justice on its own and to “punish” those they believe are responsible for problems.

Despite the fact that Russians are not inclined to turn to police or local officials to address specific problems, they overwhelmingly believe that the state plays a much more significant role than any other institution in defining the nation, a statist approach that limits the development of the horizontal ties between people and weakens social trust.

“It is generally recognized,” Pain says, “that in states where etatism predominates in mass consciousness and display vertical administrative approaches to state administration, informal rules, including patron-client relations are more significant than are formal ones.” And that means traditional values can play a major role in social consolidation, although again the basic policy documents ignore this.

“In the Strategy of State Nationality Policy,” he continues, “one of the most important tasks is the development of a pan-civic self-consciousness. However, this task is treated extremely narrowly both by government employees and a significant segment of experts” who limit it to something the state constructs, just as they did earlier.

“The ethnopolitical situation in Russia at the start of the 21st century has essentially changed in comparison to that of the 1990s, but the methodology of ‘nationality policy’ has remained what it was before. In the 1990s, the main problems of inter-ethnic relations in Russia were connected with ethnic mobilization of groups of the population” in regions.

But “in the first decade of the 21st century,” Pain argues, “the sharpness of ‘vertical conflicts about sovereignty between the republics and federal center weakened, while ‘horizontal’ inter-group conflicts in the cities began to be manifest more strongly and above all in connection with the unprecedented influx of migrants.”

As a result, “the cities became not only a place of the concentration of the population but also the main drivers of the development of the present-day state and society practically in all spheres of their lives,” the scholar says. Unfortunately, much of the government and the academic community has yet to catch with or appreciate the consequences of this change.

“It is precisely the cities which are the primary place of the manifestation of contemporary cultural diversity; in them are displayed the sharpest growth of diversity connected above all with changes in urban identity, the lowering of trust between various groups of the population and the weakening of city-wide solidarity.”

Pain says that his research shows that cities have significant resources to help deal with such conflicts. This is easier if the share of urban natives is higher so that they can integrate immigrants with less difficulty and if people are attached to their city rather than seeing it as a transit point for movement on to another.

A most important factor in limiting conflicts, he suggests, are strong mechanisms of local democracy; but unfortunately, these are increasingly rare in Russian cities. And that means that a resource that might be used to prevent or limit conflict on ethnic or religious grounds is not being exploited.

But what is needed above all, Pain suggests, is a revision of the main theoretical position of Russian nationality policy, one that “repeats the idea accepted in the USSR of the idea of ‘catch up modernization’ and ranks culture according to the level of achievement by it of a certain norm such as civic solidarity.”

“We propose instead,” Pain says, “being guided by the conception of ‘multiple modernities’ which allows for significantly greater flexibility in the assessment of the effectiveness of the administration of cultural processes and directing researchers in the search for local and specific forms of modernization.”

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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