The autonomy without autonomy

Oleg Orlov is sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for an anti-war publication in which he called the current Russian regime fascism. Culturologists add the prefix “schizo-” to this word, meaning that this sort of fascism pretends to be “anti-fascism” (examples of this: “denazification” as the reason for the military invasion of Ukraine, and manic obsession with patriotism and the theme of the Great Patriotic War, and so on).

In the sphere of interethnic relations, such a topsy-turvy approach is supported not only by massive propaganda, but also by an extensive state machinery – legislation, institutions and advisory councils in charge of the “friendship of peoples”, a network of “ethnic” and “national-cultural” public organizations – the only permitted form of self-determination, an ersatz of real federalism and self-government.

Officially, Russia’s national policy declares the goal to strengthen the unity of the “civil nation”, meaning that all citizens of the country should be primarily “Russia’s” (which is difficult to express in English where the word “Russian” only exists). At the same time, they can at the same time relate themselves to ethnic, religious and cultural groups, which also needs to be respected, and the traditions, languages and cultural heritage of these groups should be preserved and protected. These ideas are contained in government strategies, state programs and action plans, and are not bad from a bird’s-eye view. What’s wrong with people having both a “small” and a “big” identity, if at the same time the “big” one doesn’t suppress the “small” one, and these identities and people who have them peacefully coexist, without discrimination?

But upon closer examination and in practice, it quickly turns out that the two components of state strategies – “the unity of the nation” and “ethnocultural development of peoples of Russia” – are not equal. From the very beginning of the promotion of the “civil nation”, the first one was given more attention and banally more financial resources, while the “peoples of Russia” were given a postcard and folklore role. Defending the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, ADC Memorial has constantly repeatedly criticized the ostentation of the “friendship of peoples” against the background of the unresolved important problems of ethnic minorities, the denial of discrimination and racism by the authorities and the lack of effective measures to overcome them.

Indeed, the problems of governing a multiethnic, multicultural country without xenophobia, racism, and interethnic conflicts are by no means speculative, and it is relevant not only for Russia. How to ensure equal representation of minorities? How to deal with the situation when the country is divided into nominally “ethnic” territories, with different statuses? How to ensure the rights and security of minorities, even if they have their own republic, region, district, and even more important – if they don’t have it? How can languages be preserved when the scope of their use is obviously narrower than of the majority language?

There is an extensive literature on this subject, both philosophical and more practical; countries with a multiethnic population have their own approaches and relevant legislative acts. One of such approaches is to create national cultural autonomies, meaning not territories inhabited and self–governed by one or another ethnic group, but public organizations of people who identify themselves as belonging to a particular group and culture. After the collapse of the USSR, the issue of interethnic harmony became acute, and the ideas of national and cultural autonomy, suppressed from the very first years of Soviet power, appeared in the public space. In 1996, the federal law “On National-Cultural Autonomy” (NCA) was adopted in the Russian Federation.

In the law, in its current use, the NCA is defined as “a form of national and cultural self-determination, which is an association of citizens of the Russian Federation who consider themselves to be a certain ethnic community in a situation of a national minority in the relevant territory, on the basis of their voluntary self-organization in order to independently resolve issues of preserving identity, language development, education, national culture; strengthening the unity of the Russian nation; harmonization of interethnic relations; promotion of interreligious dialogue; as well as the implementation of activities, aimed at the social and cultural adaptation and integration of migrants.”

There is a lot of ideas mixed up in this definition, including the strengthening of the “Russia’s civil nation”, but in fact, the NCA is just a sort of a public organization with “ethnic specifics”.

The law clearly states: “The right to national and cultural autonomy is not the right to national and territorial self-determination.” This non-territorial autonomy assigns minorities only the sphere of culture, education, and education (nominally, even quite broadly: the right to organize education in their native language is stipulated, for example). As a reputable expert writes, “The culturalization of ethnicity looks primarily as a means of depoliticizing it, and the concept “cultural” is often used as a synonym for non-political. Only the activity of minorities, which is related to culture (often in the folklore and ethnographic sense), is recognized and encouraged by the State. Politics and the economy are controlled by others; at the same time, the problems of people belonging to a minority, such as discrimination and social marginalization, are ignored or described as a product of cultural specificity.”

Bad or good definition of the national-cultural autonomy the law gives, is this the right approach to the “national question” at all, was it possible through such a law to achieve a real improvement in the social climate, tolerance, and respect for minority rights – all this is old business related to pre-war reality. Now all the discussions are over; the state has completely usurped the “ethnic” agenda dispersing independent organizations that defended the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, and subjugating the remaining ones.

This is especially dramatic nowadays for small indigenous peoples, whose very physical survival is threatened by the extractive industry and mobilization for war. Dmitry Berezhkov, a human rights defender, a representative of the Itelmen people, says:

“… the state pays for the activities of mankurts, propagandists from among indigenous peoples who work for the authorities and on international platforms or inside Russia dancing and singing songs for victory over Ukraine. These propagandists come to the UN and say that everything is fine with the rights of indigenous peoples, that the state protects and loves them. This is a unique picture — while indigenous peoples come from Australia, Africa, Asia, Latin America and talk about their problems, about violations of their rights by governments and business, – representatives of indigenous peoples of Russia come and begin to praise their state. It is clear that the majority of them are now paid by the state, and are allowed by the state to go abroad.”

This was the case before: the authorities used the ethnic NGOs, diaspora communities, national-cultural associations either to create a beautiful picture during the “friendship festivals”, or to defame them and demand collective responsibility if any excesses occurred. If a fight happened with the involvement of, for example, Azerbaijanis – the head of the Azerbaijani autonomy or community is called for explanations. I remember a case when, after such a fight, an urgent meeting of the Azerbaijani National-Cultural Autonomy was convened in St. Petersburg, where the participants decided to “strengthen control over the activities of the Azerbaijanis in the districts of their living ” (as the newspapers reported).

And even in less bloodthirsty times than now, leaders of ethnic public organizations rarely found the courage in such situations not to swear loyalty, but to talk about the unacceptability of collective responsibility. What can we say about today, with the de facto legalized practice of apologizing on camera! For example, almost dozens of Uzbek and other public organizations in Russia have publicly condemned Usman Baratov, the head of the interregional Uzbek association “Vatandosh”. The “criminal act” attributed to Baratov is as follows: “a publication on the social network about the prices of eggs, which the military correspondents considered offensive to the participants of special military operation [in Ukraine].” Will they conduct a linguistic examination of the publication? Would a professional expert conclude seriously that a photo of a mangy hen with the caption “Hell for you, not eggs! Bring back the roosters from the front!” indicates an intention to offend the military? But after all, this picture can be understood in this sense, only by an adherent of criminal concepts and a native speaker of the criminal language (the word “rooster” there has an offensive meaning). By the way, demonstrating criminal culture is forbidden by law. But in this very sense the publication of Baratov was understood by the military correspondents and by the head of the Investigative Committee Bastrykin. And now – no jokes – Baratov is in jail, he was put on the list of extremists for the picture of a mangy chicken…

It was not only military correspondents who attacked Baratov. In a documentary about the problems of migrants, he said: “Adaptation – yes, integration – yes, but not assimilation. It’s a dangerous thing, to lose your roots. I disagree when the passports are called “Russian passports” on federal channels. It should be “passport of Russia”. Russian nationalists could not tolerate this statement; among them the odious deputy Pyotr Tolstoy best of all described the current attitude of the state to the problem of national self-determination: “All these national diasporas, associations and communities are nothing but legalized mafia structures. How are these “communities” better than the same ones, but Corsican or Sicilian? …It’s time to end interethnic liberalism. There should be no place in Russia for parallel structures with their own laws, customs and power. Only strict implementation of the norms of Russian legislation and behavior.”

Well, who, I ask, knows Russian legislation better? It is not deputy Tolstoy, but Usman Baratov, who explains the officially declared principles of the national policy of the Russian Federation and tells about “the civil nation of Russia”, preserving the roots and, of course, about a “passport of Russia”, not a “Russian passport”. Tolstoy did not explain what “Russian behavior” is, but we all know it…

This is the evolution – from the perestroika discussions about how to build a multinational state, to calls to end “interethnic liberalism.” But let’s stop talking about liberalism… Raids on migrants at their place of work and residence have long ago become routine, but even more terrible impression – and, of course, a burning shame for the “cultural capital” (St.Petersburg) – are caused by raids on New Year’s Eve, when migrants go out with their families and children to admire the decorated festive city center and where thousands of them are detained.

The authorities are acting brutally not only against migrant workers, whose integration, by the way, is also stated as a strategic goal of state policy. Protests in the regions that have a declared sovereignty are also being severely suppressed. In Bashkortostan, where thousands of people protested against gold mining, dozens of criminal cases have been opened and three people have died (death in hospital after detention, death after detention under unclear circumstances, suicide).

Bashkir activist Fail Alsynov was sentenced to four years in a penal colony – his statement in his native language, which can be translated as “black people [will leave],” was interpreted by the court as inciting hatred and hostility towards migrants who work in gold mining.

Let’s stop linguistic discussions – an activist was imprisoned for four years for an ambiguous expression in the Bashkir language, while a State Duma deputy and others like him are not responsible for pure distilled xenophobia (like the identification of diasporas and other legitimate associations with the mafia).

Olga Abramenko, ADC Memorial expert
first published on the Radio Liberty blog
Photo of protest in Bashkortostan: Muzych. Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0