Presenters Vladimir Averin and Gia Saralidze host Dmitry Orlov, general director of the Political and Economic Communications Agency.
Saralidze: Let’s discuss the place of issues related to ethnic relations in modern conditions. What are the challenges in the field of nationalist issues in Russia? If we look at the latest collection of public opinions we will see that issues related to ethnic relations are in second place in comparison with the situation three or four years ago. In your opinion, what is the reason for this? Have any new problems appeared? Or were important things not so significant as they seemed?
Orlov: Here there is a series of reasons. Firstly, patriotic mobilization – the Crimea and post-Crimean story eclipsed a lot of things. Secondly, people were worried about problems, such as crimes of Caucasian diasporas, but they were also in second place in comparison with the migration. Migration is a vaguer thing than specific activities of criminal groups. Thirdly, the economic crisis and the economic situation of specific households, citizens and residents. Against the background of these things the nationalism agenda is in second place.
We cannot say that the national question has finally been resolved. Once Joseph Stalin stated it, creating a powerful structure of nation-building in the early 1920’s. The administrative-territorial scheme, established in 1930, is still largely valid. Such statements were made at that time about a final solution to this problem. We won’t make such statements, but the severity of the nationalism question, the acuteness of ethnic conflicts, which was characteristic of the 1990’s, has decreased.
Saralidze: But the non-systemic opposition parties make attempts to drag the national issue onto the agenda.
Orlov: Yes, both the ‘Committee on January 25th’, and various groups that support a toughening of immigration policy. ‘A Fair Russia’ speaks about the resignation of the government, the Communist Party openly compiles a social agenda. Let’s see the agenda of the Liberal Democratic Party, which traditionally uses the theme “We are for the poor, we are for the Russians”. But we see no pre-election escalation of the nationalism issue.
Averin: On the other hand, Putin has recently spoken about the existence of forces that are ready to put these problems on a pedestal. Does this contain inter-ethnic and inter-regional problems?
Orlov: Of course. The Russian Federation is a complex country in every sense. It has a complex territorial system: republics, autonomous regions and compound elements of the federation such as the Tyumen and the Arkhangelsk regions. There are areas densely populated with different nationalities. There are relatively peaceful regions where negative smoldering relations among various ethnic groups exist. A significant part of the Russian Empire collapsed when revolutionary organizations such as Finnish, Polish and Ukrainian began to take on a national character. The collapse of the empire was a consequence of not only the game of geopolitical opponents of the Russian Empire, such as Germany, but also a consequence of the loss of stability of the model that existed for three hundred years.
Saralidze: Nationalist issues are always very ‘’explosive’’ and painful. I recently watched an interesting documentary film about racial reconciliation in South Africa. The starting point of unity was the moment when the national rugby team in South Africa surprisingly defeated the New Zealand national rugby team in a final match.
Orlov: There was no unity. Firstly there was the desperate shortage of apartheid and then the majority came to power. And they are retrieving their losses, although it is in a gentle manner. Tension is being maintained and there are no apartheid or restrictions, but the line of “us and them’’ exists. Fortunately, there has never been such an ethnic policy in Russia, neither in the Muscovy period, nor in the imperial period, nor in the Soviet era, nor today. Fortunately, interethnic contradictions are far from these kinds of confrontations – apartheid and schemes for depriving the population of their rights.
Saralidze: I don’t compare. I am about things that unite people and increase patriotic enthusiasm – it may be a large sports victory or some political victories. The unity after the events in Crimea provided a lot of opportunities that can be used, including in the sphere of ethnic relations.
Orlov: Not only the mobilization, but also the subsequent economic crisis. There is a common misconception that people try to find those who are responsible for their problems in national communities or diasporas. Most just try to survive in times of crisis. The slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus” is not on the political agenda when everyone started thinking about their own survival. The problem of survival in the economic crisis doesn’t encourage popular belief to search for migrants, spies, or search for some ethnic communities which are responsible for their problems.
This topic ceased to excite and to be painful. The severity of these problems continues, especially in the Caucasus, and we see a different picture. But this is a part of Russia and it means the problems are regional, not national.
Averin: What about such regions as Buryatia for example?
Orlov: If you have a desire you can find ethnic problems even in a very calm region. For example, activists from calm regions visit congresses of the Finno-Ugric peoples, trying to promote a formula for the Finno-Ugric revival, harassment of the Finno-Ugric minorities by the central Russian regime. Such games are aimed at destabilizing and unravelling the activities of certain diasporas, especially those regions that have their own common languages and cultural ties and some nations outside the Russian Federation. The game continues, it is ineffective.
Averin: Is it always supported by external players?
Orlov: Not always. There are also domestic players. Recall how the leader of the national republic Murtaza Rakhimov tried to promote the Bashkir congress (the Kurultai). It was a powerful organized structure. Thousands of people gathered to protest. The Kurultai remained after the departure of Rakhimov, but it had no political significance anymore.
So the devil is not so black as he is painted. These nationalist structures are not so serious. But it was said in the 1990s that Bashkortostan is ready for separation. This escalation was not based on the real interests of the majority of Bashkirs. It’s a classic example of a wide territory, which nourished two peasant wars in the 17th century, as there was a strong national element. But there is no element of aggression now. The great game, aimed at changing the status of the republic, especially its separation and the escalation of unrest, is not conducted anymore.
Averin: Indeed, it is possible to make a nationalism problem out of social and environmental issues.
Orlov: Of course. Or any criminal incident. A representative is killed by someone of a particular nationality. This matter requires responsibility, media and law enforcement agencies, which report about these events. And the responsibility of individuals in general. But it has significantly grown over the past few years. People have become more careful regarding each other.
Averin: Are these the consequences of any deliberate policy?
Orlov: Both are the results of policy, and the result is patriotic mobilization, and other issues are in the foreground.
Saralidze: Does this mean that the regional authorities can relax?
Orlov: It is not allowed to relax. What is the patriotic mobilization? This is a framework. This is a choice that citizens have made. This is the support for the President, which significantly increased in 2014 and has been maintained with small variations up to now. But this framework does not mean that citizens are ready to support every decision by the authorities in the field of economic policy. Every decision by the authorities in the area of nationalism policy, the administrative-territorial structure and each solution in the field of social policy.
Saralidze: Could international problems may become a trump card for someone against the background of the Duma elections this year?
Orlov: Fortunately, there is such a party as the Liberal Democratic Party in our political system, which adsorbs the protest and carnavalizes this process. Zhirinovsky is an inimitable master of shock. But there are organizations that have operated on the brink of a foul or even illegally. And the ‘Committee on January 25th’, made a serious bid in this sense. It will be necessary to fight this organization seriously, because it has made dangerous attempts. But in any case, the organizations that were on the rise a few years ago are disintegrated, and they don’t have a significant impact on political processes and the public opinion. And in my opinion, there are no signs.
Recall that Alexey Navalny flirted with the nationalism question, but gave it up. It also means that the criterion is not real. I don’t believe that there will be any serious players at the elections, except for the Liberal Democratic Party, that can undermine the political situation, or really rely on entering Parliament, i.e. overcoming the 5% barrier.
There will be single-constituency members who defend the interests of compact areas with sustainable ethnic populations. The preliminary voting system of ‘United Russia’ will contribute to their advancement. The responsibility of regional and national selection committees, the responsibility of the elites of these regions will play its role in order not to allow extremists and radicals who issue any inappropriate demands. But it is one thing not to allow extremists, and another thing to pass those who represent the interests of a national group. This is a sacred thing. It is important to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Averin: Dmitry Ivanovich, what is your assessment of what is happening in Ukraine in the sphere of nationalist relations?
Orlov: It is a very aggressive story, in my opinion.
Averin: Has it had any impact on Russia?
Orlov: Many people call what is happening in the Ukraine now a nationalist revolution. It is said that there was a national-democratic political system. But this is wrong. This system is authoritarian, aggressive, and there are no prerequisites for the Russian political system to move in this direction today. There is no reason to assume that there is such a possibility that we will choose this path. Russia will remain a multinational state with guaranteed rights of citizens. Klyuchevskii said: “The history of Russia is the history of a country that is colonizing.” He didn’t mean that the Russian colonize Tatars, Bashkirs or the inhabitants of Siberia. The word “colonize” means extension and integration, which includes dozens of people in the ethnic field of cultural interaction. This is what Klyuchevskii meant. By the way, he was moksha by nationality, and at the same time was a conductor of the unity of the country and imperial interests.
Today, the sharpness of the nationalist question has significantly decreased. I want to stress once again that all nationalist issues, issues of interethnic relations in the election campaign in order to find out who is right and who is wrong will be only on a regional agenda (not in the first place even in the regions) if they are on the agenda at all.