Thursday, September 07, 2006

Window on Eurasia - Kondopoga

Window on Eurasia: Kondopoga - 'The Birth of a Nation' or the Beginning of the End of Russia?

Paul Goble


Vienna, September 7 - The growing flood of reactions by commentators of all stripes to the events last week in Kondopoga may say more about the present state and future prospects of the Russian Federation than do the details of the conflict itself in that Karelian city between local ethnic Russians and immigrants from the Caucasus.

Two of the most interesting commentaries on those events appeared yesterday. In an essay posted online, analyst Avraam Smulevich asks whether the willingness of the Russians to stand up as a community rather rely on the state to defend them might represent "the birth of the nation".

Smulyevich suggests that historically the Russians have "relied on the strength of the state for the defense of their interests in conflicts with other peoples" but argues that today such "a model no longer works."

And consequently, he says, Russians must either rebuild a powerful state machine or coalesce as a nation capable of defending itself.

In his commentary, Smulyevich notes that as in the past, Russians today "are incapable of acting as a single whole, including in the mobilization of financial or administrative resources 'for the common goal' and that 'national membership' of ethnic Russian bureaucrats plays a far smaller role in defining their action than their pockets."

After surveying what he describes as the long history of the inability of Russians to act as a nation - and his words recall the debate between Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and émigré historian Yuri Srechinskiy in the 1970s - Smulyevich draws attention to two aspects of this issue that few have paid much attention to.

On the one hand, he notes that in post-Soviet times, as in the past, "all of the most notable anti-Caucasus demonstrations have taken place not in purely Russian regions but rather in the south of Russia or in Karelia," a republic in which more than a quarter of the indigenous population is not Russian.

And on the other, he notes that conflicts between ethnic Russians and people from the Caucasus have generally occurred in smaller cities, precisely because "the horizontal ties among the residents" of both groups are far stronger in these places than in larger cities or in rural areas.

Smulyevich's argument suggests one of the reasons why violent clashes like those in Kondopoga may not spread to Moscow and other major Russian cities, but second essay, this one by Aleksei Pantykin, says the Kondopoga events highlight the danger that "the Russian Federation may collapse in the same way the USSR did."

He bases his argument on the fact that the reaction of Russian officialdom and even many Russians resembles all too closely the disastrous misreading of the start of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a conflict that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

At that time, he recalls, one Politburo member (V.I. Dolgikh) travelled to the region and bemoaned the fact that tehre was a dispute between "two Muslim peoples," a statement that not only distorted the facts - Armenia is historically Christian - but highlighted the extent to which the Soviet leadership was out of touch with reality.

Citing the observation of Ortega y Gasset that elites must restrain their peoples, Pantykin suggests that at present many elites in Russia are doing just the reverse, pushing both sides in the conflict in Kondopoga toward more and broader conflicts rather than calming the situation.

Others agree: Pavel Svyatenkov noted that Russia was rapidly becoming a place in which one section of the country might decide to fight another, a situation unthinkable elsewhere: "even in a nightmare," he said, "it is impossible to imagine Texas forces advancing on California".

And Oleg Kashin argued that Russian elites bear much of the responsibility for this deterioration, not only by failing to discuss what is going on but by offering television time to extremist Russian nationalists like Yegor Khomogorov to advance their agendas.

But however valid or invalid these generalizations may be, the Kondopoga events are already having three major consequences. First, officials in both Karelia and Moscow have rushed to blame the non-Russian immigrants for what happened rather than exploring the complex of causes behind this explosion.

Second, non-Russians in major Russian cities are rushing to say that their communities will never destabilize the situation there, however bad things may get. Indeed, the head of the Uzbek community in St. Petersburg said his people would remain calm despite recent knifings of its members.

And third, in some Russian cities, officials now feel themselves empowered to repress non-Russians and especially people from the Caucasus even more harshly. In Kaliningrad, ANN reported on Tuesday militia have been going house to house and asking: "Are there any suspicious people there? Any persons of Caucasus nationality?"

Officials there say they are doing this to enhance security in advance of what they hope will be a visit to that non-contiguous portion of the Russian Federation later this month. But few people be they Russian or non-Russian will fail to conclude that what is going on is something bigger than that.

And to the extent they are correct, one of the two more apocalyptic conclusions offered above - either a repressive Russian nationalist state or the disintegration of the Russian Federation - could prove true, despite the expectations or hopes of many in virtually all camps.
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