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Russia: The Ethnicity Issue

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For Russia - with its rich diversity of languages, traditions, ethnicities and cultures - the ethnicity issue is without any exaggeration a fundamental one. Any responsible policymaker or public leader must realise that public and inter-ethnic harmony is one of our country's key requisites.

We see what is happening in the world, and what serious risks are accumulating. The growth of inter-ethnic and inter-faith tensions is one of today's realities. Nationalism and religious intolerance are coming to provide an ideological base for most radical groupings and tendencies. This undermines and destroys the state and divides society. The most developed and affluent countries, which used to be proud of their tolerance, have come face-to-face with an "exacerbated ethnic issue."

Behind the "failure of the multicultural project" stands the crisis of the model of the "ethnic state" - a state which has historically been built exclusively on the basis of ethnic identity. This is a serious challenge that Europe and many other regions in the world will have to face.

Russia as an "historic state"

The situation in our case, for all the apparent similarities, is entirely different. Our ethnic and migration problems are directly related to the collapse of the USSR, and beyond that, historically, to the destruction of Greater Russia, which emerged in its original form in the 18th century.

Historically, Russia has been neither a mono-ethnic state nor a US-style "melting pot," where most people are, in some way, migrants. Russia developed over centuries as a multinational state, in which different ethnic groups have had to mingle, interact and connect with each other - in domestic and professional environments, and in society as friends.

I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a "national" or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history.

A common cultural code

The Russian experience of state development is unique. Ours is a multiethnic society; we are a united people. But when a multiethnic society is infected with the virus of nationalism, it loses its strength and stability.

The Russian people are state-builders, as evidenced by the existence of Russia. This kind of civilisational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture, although this culture is represented not only by ethnic Russians, but by all the holders of this identity, regardless of their ethnicity. It is a kind of cultural code which has been attacked ever more often over the past few years; hostile forces have been trying to break it, and yet, it has survived. It needs to be supported, strengthened and protected.

Education plays a huge role in this. First and foremost, education programmes should emphasise important subjects such as the Russian language, Russian literature and Russian history - taught, of course, within the context of the global wealth of all ethnic traditions and cultures.

There is no need for anyone living in Russia to forget their religion or ethnicity. But they should identify themselves primarily as citizens of Russia and take pride in that. No one has the right to put their ethnic or religious interests above the laws of the land. At the same time, national laws must take into account the specific characteristics of different ethnic and religious groups.

Nationalities policy and the role of strong institutions

Society's systemic problems frequently surface in the form of interethnic tensions. It should always be kept in mind that there is a direct relation between unresolved socioeconomic problems, an inequitable law enforcement system, bureaucratically entangled officials and corruption, when considering ethnic conflict.

We must be aware of the risks and threats inherent in situations likely to reach the point of ethnic conflict. And we should estimate the activity or inactivity of law enforcement or of the authorities, which have led to interethnic tensions, with the most critical approach manner, and with no regard for rank or position.

One more point of principle is that we must promote a democratic, multi-party system. Decrees are to be issued soon, which will simplify and liberalise the registration and functionality of political parties; proposals on reestablishing the popular election of regional governors are being put into practice. All these steps are necessary and to the point. But the organisation of regional parties, including in the national republics, is one thing we should think twice about. This is a direct path to separatism.

The migration problem and our integration project

Some are concerned that the creation of the Eurasian Union will lead to a surge in migration and consequently to the amplification of existing problems. I believe we must clearly outline our position.

  • It is obvious that we should dramatically improve the quality of the government's migration policy.
  • Domestic migration has been growing in this country; people travel to other constituent territories of the Federation or to big cities to study, to live or to work. They are full citizens of the Russian Federation.
  • Third comes the strengthening of the judicial system and establishing effective law enforcement agencies.
  • The value and attractiveness of education could offer migrants a strong motivation to integrate into society while low educational standards will always prompt further isolation and seclusion of migrant communities that will last much longer, even for generations.
  • Finally, the fifth point is close integration across the post-Soviet space as a real alternative to uncontrolled migration.

From this perspective, the tasks we set ourselves regarding these internal issues (creating a new economy and effective employment, rebuilding professional associations, developing production capacity and social infrastructure across the country), and regarding Eurasian integration, become key instruments in bringing migration flows back to a manageable level.

We must build a model of state and a civilised society that would be equally attractive and balanced for everyone who views Russia as their motherland.

We have lived together for many centuries. Together, we were victorious in the most terrible of wars. And we will continue to exist side by side. To those who want and try to divide us, I say - in your dreams.

This is an excerpted translation of an article that originally appeared in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The full version is here.

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