By Paul Goble
The share of Russians who back the idea of “Russia for the [ethnic] Russians” has remained almost unchanged at around 50 percent over the last 14 years, but the share of those who are indifferent to this idea has gone up by almost half from 14 to a high of 23 percent in 2013 and 21 percent now, according to the latest Levada Center polls.
According to a report by Viktorya Kuzmenko on the OpenRussia portal, fewer Russians this year than at any point in the past– 18 percent — say there is inter-ethnic tension in their city or district. Only 12 percent say that such conflicts could arise where they live, although one in four said they were a problem for Russia as a whole (openrussia.org/post/view/18486/).
The survey firm found that “the level of ethnophobia has been stable for the last three years in a row, with only a fifth of respondents expressing ethnic prejudices.” At the same time, however, 70 percent say that there should be limitations on the number of certain ethnic groups in Russia and almost that share call for Moscow to adopt a tougher immigration policy.
Kuzmenko spoke with Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the director of the SOVA Information-Analytic Center, about the reasons behind xenophobia in Russia. He said that “xenophobia is in a certain sense a normal condition for people,” although people vary widely in their willingness to express it and the objects of this hatred for those who are viewed as different.
“The Soviet experience of the peaceful coexistence of nations should not be idealized,” Verkhovsky continued. “There was xenophobia even in Soviet times, but to express such ideas was dangerous. After the disintegration of the USSR, this became permissible” and not subject to draconian punishments.
“Moreover,” he added, “we had an empire which in one instance fell apart. When this happens, then ethnic tensions always grow. In this sense, it was a normal process. But the problem is that in Russia, the process of the disintegration of the empire still has not come to some kind of conclusion.”
As a result, interethnic relations in the Russian Federation remain unstable, the sociologist explained. “As long as this process is real and not viewed as finished in the heads of people, xenophobia will not simply exist but clearly manifest itself.”
From approximately 2000 to 2012, Verkhovsky said, “the situation [in Russia] regarding inter-ethnic tensions was stable but bad. And in 2013, it got much worse as a result of the conduct of the anti-immigrant campaign which was notable most of all on federal television.” That year was the peak so far.
The situation has improved or at least changed since then, he pointed out. “On the one hand, the campaign ended … and on the other began [the war in] Ukraine. And people thus shifted to the latter theme. Xenophobia didn’t disappear entirely, simply its indicators fell. A certain part of the population forgot that it didn’t like migrants … and completely turned its attention to Obama and the Banderites.”
The growing indifference among Russians about the idea of “Russia for the [ethnic] Russians” reflects this shift of negative attitudes away from domestic targets to foreign ones. In addition, he noted, “Russian ethnic nationalism … has entered its own crisis” as a result of government repression and its own internal conflicts.
Suppressing organized Russian nationalists is relatively easy, the shift in public opinion at large, Verkhovsky said, is more difficult and has been achieved not so much by repression as by the television. But even “it is not capable of curing people from aggressiveness and the inclination to blame one’s neighbor.”
All Moscow television can do is “to change the vector of this aggression, and therefore we see now this shift from hostility to migrants to hatred of the West,” Verkhovsky concluded.