Staunton, November 3 – In the final decades of the Soviet Union, many in the non-Russian union republics began to ask why some of them were headed by members of their titular nationalities and others by Russians and increasingly demanded that members of the titular nation occupy key posts.
Over time, Moscow backed down, first agreeing that the top party official in any union republic should be a member of the titular nationality as a long as his deputy was a Russian and then ultimately yielding on that point and allowing officials of the titular nationalities to occupy ever more of the top posts.
That had the effect of reducing central control over the union republics and ultimately set the stage for the disintegration of the USSR.
Now, some non-Russians in the non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation are asking the same question about the heads of their republics, wondering why in some cases they are members of the titular nationality but in others ethnic Russians who may not even know the national language, a question that once again represents the seeds of a challenge to Moscow.
Erdem Gomboyev describes the existing situation among the non-Russian republics and suggests that at the very least, those who occupy the top job in three republics where it is a constitutional requirement should be members of the titular nationality or speak the language, something that is not yet true in his native Buryatia.
The Buryat commentator notes that Russia now consists of 85 subjects, 22 of which are national republics. Unlike the 63 others, these republics have the right to establish their government languages and to have their own constitutions. All have titular nationalities except for occupied Crimea.
In four of the republics, he notes, “representatives of the titular nation were never heads.” These include Karelia, Khakasia, Buryatia and Udmurtia, all places where ethnic Russians form super-majorities in the population, ranging from 80 percent to 8 percent in Karelia to 60 percent to 30 percent in Udmurtia.
One might have expected Adygeya and Bashkortostan to fall into this category as well given that the Adygeys number 24 percent of their republic’s population and the Russians 65 percent and that Bashkirs form only 30 percent of the population of their republic while Russians form 36 percent and Tatars 25 percent. But both have always had titular nationality heads.
Ten other non-Russian republics – Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Tatarstan, Tyva, Chuvashia, and Chechnya – have always had representatives of the titular nations as their heads. But in the remaining five – Altay, Komi, Mari El, Mordvinia, and Sakha – the head has alternated between a member of the titular nationality and ethnic Russians.
In the first four of these, Gomboyev continues, ethnic Russians form a larger share of the population than do members of the titular nation, but in one, Sakha, the titular nation is larger but not by an overwhelming percentage, 50 percent Sakha to 40 percent ethnic Russians. Occupied Crimea which Moscow does not view as having a titular nationality as such completes the list.
Why is Buryatia on the list of those whose head has never been an ethnic Buryat? the commentator asks. Can it be that “out of the million people of the republic there cannot be found a single worthy candidate?” However that may be, Gomboyev says, Moscow should at least follow the constitutional requirement there that the top official speak the local language.
The center has done that in the case of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan but hasn’t in Buryatia. To ask these kind of questions is the beginning of a kind of challenge that a generation ago Moscow proved it wasn’t up to meeting without losing control over the situation. Now, it clearly faces those again, and it will be interesting to see how the central authorities respond.
If they concede the point to the non-Russians, they will not only suffer a loss of influence and control in non-Russian republics but also spark demands in Russian-majority regions and territories that their residents should have the same right. But if the center doesn’t, that will ensure the rise of extra-systemic national movements that may be an even greater threat to Moscow.