Current event in eastern Ukraine may prove decisive for Russia’s future. Considering the growing instability in Ukraine and the North Caucasus, it is hard to imagine that these regions will not eventually destabilize the Russian political leadership and the ethno-religious stability within the Russian Federation. This is self-evident as strong nationalist movements continue to develop in the backdrop of the Russian political scene. Nationalist groups continue to place the identity of the current federal state under close scrutiny. This raises the questions of what the Russian Federation should be and who are the real Russians? Central to this overall discussion is what impact this discourse has on democracy-building process.
Regardless of the wording used to describe Russia’s current status within the “transition paradigm” (whose prevailing epistemological utility has of late come to be increasingly questioned) – a “spurious” or “imitation” democracy, a country that is stuck in the murky zone between autocracy and democracy, or an outright authoritarian system – there appears to be a consensus that Russia represents a classic case of a failed transition from totalitarianism to democracy.
What accounts for this regretful outcome? Some analysts tend to resort to old clichés, pointing to President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies KGB records and to the proverbial Russian penchant to unconditionally support a strong leader, right or wrong. Other Russian specialists search for deeper roots, such as Russia’s dearth of experience in representative governance, the populace’s general unfamiliarity with the principle of self-rule, the ignorance of civil rights, and the lack of any real notion of private property or rule of law compounded by a traditionally ineffective and often corrupt judiciary.
All these aspects of Russia’s historical-cultural inheritance have undoubtedly contributed to the country’s post-communist trajectory. However, at the heart of Russia’s failure to build a democratic polity in the wake of the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 is the fundamental and so far unresolved problem of national identity. Russia’s peculiarity continues to be the country’s chronic inability to forge national and social cohesion – in other words, to build a political or civic nation – which is the key to the success of any democratic transformation.
One established school of thought emphasizes the existence of an intimate link between nation-building and democracy. Before any society has a chance to become a democracy, it has to become a nation. On the other hand, civic nations emerge only in societies firmly based on the principles of “social contract” and people’s sovereignty. Only under these conditions can a people perceive itself as a true source of power and the state bureaucracy be vested with the authority to run state affairs in the common public and national interest. Only in such circumstances can the entire community imagine itself to be a cohesive entity – a unified “we”. This is how the civic nation is born, and this type of “imagined community” indeed represents something more tangible than a mere “figment of imagination.”
In Russia, more than in other countries, taking official documents and self-descriptions at face value can be very misleading. Whatever discursive realities are advanced by the 1993 Constitution that characterizes Russia as a “democratic federation” and “civic nation,” Russian national identity remains highly ambiguous, and the construction of the Russian nation appears still to be a work-in-progress.
Although the Constitution implies that the Russian (rossiiskaya) nation consists of the citizens of the Russian Federation which emerged as a sovereign state from under the rubble of the collapse of the USSR, there exist at least four alternative ways of conceptualizing the Russian nation.
First, many champions of Russia’s “imperial mission” continue to argue that the notion of “Russianness” is forever blended with the notion of empire. There can be no true Russia without a multi-ethnic Eurasian empire led by Russia. Recent events in Ukraine (the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, covert support to pro-Russian rebels, and collusion to growing separatism in eastern Ukraine), many would say, confirm this view.
Second, there is a school of thought that conceives Russia as a community of the eastern Slavs – a view that advocates the integration of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and northern Kazakhstan. The supporters of this approach, who are quite influential within the Russian bureaucracy, assert that Russians are members of a “divided nation.”
Third, there is a vision of Russia as a vaguely defined community of Russian-speaking people who, irrespective of their ethnic origin, perceive Russian culture as their own.
Finally, an alarming tendency of conceptualizing Russia in terms of ethno-nationalism has emerged. The growing popularity of the slogan “Russia for Russians,” attacks against representatives of national minorities, the emergence of organizations formed to fight “illegal migrants”, and growing anti-Americanism and anti-Western sentiments are all symptoms of this growing trend.
The disagreement as to what constitutes Russianness, coupled with the ambiguous attitude of the Kremlin leadership, which asserts that the Soviet collapse was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” presents a significant obstacle to building a civic nation in Russia. Furthermore, despite the existence of formal institutions in today’s Russian Federation (Constitution, elected president, national parliament, local legislative assemblies, etc.), the overwhelming majority of Russians do not identify with them, suspecting, quite rightly, that these institutions are a mere façade that camouflages the re-creation of a post-Soviet collection of “networks of personal dependence.”
Since existing Russia’s civic institutions do not properly function, the holders of formal Russian passports cannot regard themselves as full-fledged citizens. But in a country where there are no true citizens, there can be no true civic nation either. Lacking the demos (people) with its sense of civic loyalty that binds together members of society and the ruling elite, Russia’s democratization process will continue to be a moot issue and a non-starter.
*Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. His research, teaching and consulting interests include Russian politics, Eurasian geopolitics, international political economy and globalization.