Crimea a ‘Catalyst’ for Major Changes in Russian Nationality Policy

April 5, 2014

Staunton, April 5 – The annexation of Crimea is already becoming “a powerful catalyst” for serious changes in Moscow’s nationality policy and even on the current principle of the national-territorial division of the Russian Federation, according to Margarita Lyange, head of the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism.

In an essay on the portal yesterday, Lyang says that the way in which Crimea was absorbed into the Russian Federation and the promises the Kremlin made to the Crimean Tatars during that process are already having an impact on the expectations and demands of a variety of non-Russian groups.

She discusses four areas where this is already the case: the assignment of officials on the basis of ethnic quotas, the rehabilitation of formerly repressed peoples, the status and alphabets of various groups, and the configuration of the federation, including the possibility of the establishment of new federal subjects.

As part of a broader effort to generate support for the Moscow-sponsored referendum on the unification of Crimea with the Russian Federation, the Kremlin promised the Crimean Tatars a de jure quota of seats in the parliament and of positions in the government. De facto such quotas exist elsewhere, but they have seldom been acknowledged so openly.

Instead, officials have maintained at least since Gorbachev’s time that they are choosing only the most qualified personnel even if in reality they make sure that the most important groups and especially the titular nationalities are represented in key or at least visible government institutions.

Once one begins speaking openly of quotas, Lyange notes, “it is logical to presuppose that they will somehow be connected” with the numbers a group has in the population. But in the case of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars who form 12 percent of the peninsula’s population are being offered and thus will expect 20 percent of the leading posts.

That means, of course, that “the political weight of a single Crimean Tatar citizen of Russia is one and a half times more than that of the representatives of other peoples,” Lyange continues, a situation that one can only hope “all the other residents of the republic will accept philosophically.”

It may be an improvement to acknowledge openly what is in fact current practice, but one can hardly expect that those who are underrepresented as a result – particularly when these are the ethnic Russians who the Kremlin regularly proclaims to be “the state forming nation” of the country – will be entirely happy about this.

A second way in which Crimea will affect nationality relations in the Russian Federation, Lyange continues, concerns the future of the 12 nations who were deported by Soviet leaders. President Vladimir Putin has promised that there will be “a full rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars,” and other nationalities who suffered in the past are already asking for the same.

Since Putin’s declaration on this point, the Ingushes have already prepared a suit seeking the return to Ingushetia of the disputed Prigorodny district from North Osetia. The Russian Germans have called for the restoration of their republic in the Middle Volga. And other repressed peoples have indicated that they will now seek full compensation as well.

A third cluster of issues sparked by or at least intensified as a result of what is happening in Crimea concerns languages. Moscow has promised that there will be three state languages in Crimea – Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar. That in itself is not unprecedented: in Daghestan, for example, there are more.

But there is a serious issue. Since 1997, Crimean Tatars have used the Latin script rather than the Cyrillic-based one required by Russian Federation Law. Some Kazan Tatars want to change the alphabet their nation uses to the Latin script, and they will be able to invoke the Crimean precedent.

Elsewhere, language issues are likely to intensify. A few days ago, Anatoly Grigoryev, head of the Karelian Congress, called for the introduction of three state languages – Russian, Karelian and Finnish, arguing that “the status of the Republic of Karelia is no longer than that of the Republic of Crimea, and we have no fewer rights.”

And the fourth way that Crimea is likely to affect nationality policy in the Russian Federation concerns the nature of Russian federalism as such. Up to now, those subjects have been of two kinds: ethno-national republics which have more rights, and non-ethnic oblasts and krays which have fewer.

But “now in our Federation has appeared a subject with the rank of a republic but which does not have any relation to an ethnic division,” Lyange points out. That could “transform the table o ranks of the administrative division of the country” because the krays and oblasts “will want to return to the issue of [their] status,” employing Crimea as a precedent.

That could lead to moves to eliminate the difference in the constitutional and legal status of republics, on the one hand, and oblasts and krays, on the other, but if that appears to be the case, the republics will certainly see this as a threat to themselves and contest it. At the very least, this is another way in which Crimea will heighten ethnic tensions within Russia.

Another way in which Crimea is likely to have an impact concerns “major ethnic communities living outside of national republics.” According to Lyange, on the basis of the Crimean precedent, “they can aspire to the introduction in krays and oblasts of their native language as a state language.” Tatars in Nizhny Novgorod could certainly ask for that.

Obviously, all these things are going to be controversial, but Lyange expresses the hope that they can be “discussed inside the country … quietly and without resorting to hysteria” and what she calls “Maidan-like xenophobic terminology.” There is little reason to think that her hopes will prove true in the ethnically overheated Russia of today.