A truly national agent

Recently a new federal agency was established in Russia, which will deal with national and ethnic issues. I remember some time ago, when NGO activists were discussing adoption of the law on “foreign agents”, they often said that in Russian the term “agent” is primarily used for insurance or trading agents, or for police agents (with detective or even provocatorial connotations)), and that if one speaks of “foreign agents” this can only mean “spies”. But the bureaucrats are not very sensitive to these language subtleties and hence they are not afraid of the word: various federal agencies exist in Russia since 2004 and their brief names are a real joy for those loving Russian language – Rosmolodezh (Russian federal agency for youth), Rosvodoresursy (agency for water resources). What will be the name of the new federal agency dealing with nationalities? Rosnaz?
The history of supervising national question was rather long and troublesome during the perestroika period: from creation of the Ministry of nationalities through its further liquidation and transformation into a department within the Ministry for regional development and on to liquidation of the Ministry of regional development, distribution of its responsibilities among three different ministries and transfer of “national issues” to the Ministry of culture (while the Ministry of justice inherited special Cossack issues). Now a new federal agency was established, which got both general national issues and specific Cossack issues from the Ministries of culture and justice respectively…
The functions of the newly established agency include preparation and implementation of state national (ethnic) policy. This is a highly sensitive problem – what will be the state policy regarding the problems of nationalities? How the state will implement its earlier proclaimed policy aimed at protecting ethnic minorities and small-numbered people, which is supposed to co-exist with the policy of “strengthening unity of multi-ethnic people of the Russian Federation”? What does the state intend to do “to prevent all forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religious and linguistic affiliation” and “to prevent attempts at stirring up racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife, hatred and enmity”?
Appointment of the head of the new agency also tells a lot about the possible state policy. Instead of the long term survivor Alexander Zhuravsky, who used to be the head of department in charge of ethnic relations in the liquidated Ministry for regional development, Igor Barinov was chosen to head the new agency. Barinov, before his career as a State Duma deputy, used to be a paratrooper, alumni of the Academy of the Federal Security Service (FSB), head of FSB special detachment “Alfa”, participant of the law enforcement operations in Chechen Republic. All-time pro-Kremlin TV propagandist Sergey Markov gave the following characteristic of the new head of agency: “Patriot. This is a clear response for the public demand for new faces. This is the new generation of Russian politicians. This is a clear response to attempts to create political destabilization by stirring up inter-ethnic strife. Barinov will effectively put down these attempts.”
So, the general direction was given and, unfortunately, it’s the one that we know all too well: attempts to resolve ethnic issues by force are numerous and well known in Russian history (from the suppression of the Polish insurrections to deportations of whole ethnic groups).
Unfortunately, a similar ethnic policy is used in Crimea right now: repressions against Crimean Tatars, closure of the TV channel, which broadcasted in Crimean Tatar language, promotion of new “proper” ethnic leaders and establishment of new mass media, which will be loyal towards the new authorities. We have seen this before, when Anti-Zionst Committee was established with “proper” Jews at its head, while the “rootless cosmopolitans” were suppressed and the state carried out a policy of anti-Semitism. This time, however, we are likely to have anti-immigrant pogroms and hate crimes as the background of official state policy.
Just another, most recent example: at the end of February 2015 a criminal incident involving two Azeri persons was registered in Saint Petersburg and following that city governor Mr.Poltavchenko called the head of local Azeri national-cultural association Vagif Mamishev to ask him “what was going on?” Mamishev, being the advisor of the governor on national issues, called a general meeting of all ethnic diasporas in Saint Petersburg and de facto proposed to introduce principle of collective responsibility for any crimes committed by natives of any origin. He stated that “recently our natives and natives of other ethnic backgrounds commit a lot of crimes, primarily in public spaces – restaurants, markets, shops, taxis. We cannot keep pretending that it does not concern us… We will make a list of cafes, restaurants, markets, which belong to our natives. And if a crime is registered there, their administrators will be held responsible for the things that happen on their territories.” Fortunately, this initiative of Mr.Mamishev was not supported by the state officials dealing with ethnic issues and the Federal Migration Service (FMS).
Event the public statements of politicians, who usually explain through Russian television networks what the state’s “general line” currently is, can indicate that the prospects of the newly established agency will be quite far from defending the rights of minorities. As Sergey Markov told Izvestia, it was important that the agency was not turned into an agency for ethnic minorities. According to Markov, “the big problem is that the members of Russian ethnic majority feel deprived of their social status, and in national republics it is often disadvantageous to be a Russian. The problem of criminalization of diasporas is also to be dealt with”. His concerns are also shared by head of the Russian Senate (Council of Federation) Valentina Matviyenko: she stressed that the new agency should not be mixed up with an agency dealing specifically with problems of ethnic minorities, that it should deal with the problems of all inter-ethnic relations between peoples, who live in the Russian Federation, and that ethnic Russians should also be one of the topics for the work of the new agency, so that “all ethnic groups should have equal weight categories”.
Such an agenda proposed for the agency will not in any way help those who require protection of their social and cultural rights, who need protection from discrimination and ethnically-based violence. It is quite clear that the “weight categories” of the ethnic majority and minorities are very different – ethnic minorities are smaller not only in statistical terms, but they also have smaller possibilities for being represented in various bodies of authority, in public life and in terms of cultural development. That is why assistance should be provided to those who find themselves in a difficult position and who have limited possibilities. The issue of ethnic majority doesn’t have anything to do with this.
It is also quite likely that the new federal agency was established in order to be able to represent Russian Federation at the international level and to present reports to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe.
This year Russian Federation will present its report on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to the Council of Europe. And the new agency will have a possibility of reporting what measures were adopted in Russia to eliminate segregation of Roma children in schools or what is to be done in order to provide the possibility for Crimean Tatars and other ethnic minorities to freely use their language, or how the indigenous peoples could maintain their traditional ways of life in the regions where they live. Human rights defenders regularly report violations of the rights of minorities and we will see now how honest the new federal agency will be in dealing with these problems.

by Olga Abramenko

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