Moscow’s Support for Non-Russians Isn’t Determined by Their Size, Muslim Commentator Says

July 23, 2014
President Medvedev visiting Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidzhan "promising more engagement for the forgotten land of the Jews." Photo by News of St. Petersburg, May 2010.

Staunton, July 21 – Russian officials have often argued that the amount of government support for the titular nationalities of the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation should reflect their share of the population rather than the fact that these republics are the national homes of those nations.

But in fact, a Muslim commentator says, Moscow supports some nationalities even if they form a miniscule portion of the population and doesn’t support others who form a far larger share, an issue that is becoming more explosive in the case of occupied Crimea where Russian officials now suggest the Crimean Tatars form a smaller share than they claim.

Such discrimination, especially when it follows the line between Muslim nations and non-Muslim ones, is potentially explosive in the Russian Federation, and it could become even more explosive in the form Akhmad Makarov presents it — between massive Russian support for the Jewish community in Birobidzhan and much less Russian backing for Muslims of in Crimea.

In an article over the weekend on the portal, Makarov on the basis of recent visits to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East and to occupied Crimea offers a comparison of Russian nationality policies in the two.

The Birobidzhan Jewish Autonomous Region is interesting in many respects, the Muslim commentator says, “but its main distinction which sets it apart from its neighbors and even more from other regions of Russia is its creation of a base for Jewish culture.” Indeed, he argues, it was created by the Soviet authorities as a kind of anti-Zionist project.

But relatively few Jews have ever lived there. In 1939, 16.2 percent of the region’s population identified as Jews. By 1989, their share had fallen to 4.1 percent, and now, he says, officials estimate that they form only nine-tenths of one percent, the smallest share of titular nationality in any non-Russian region of the Russian Federation.

Despite that share, “the region has preserved a clear ethnic uniqueness rare for the south of the Far East, and conditions for the preservation and transfer of Judaism and Jewish culture have been created.” All the signs on official institutions and streets are in Yiddish as well as Russian, and “one of the symbols of the city is a colossal menorah, set up in the station square.”

There is the Freud Jewish Community Center, a synagogue, and both Jewish culture and the Yiddish language are being “actively” promoted, Makarov says. “In general, one can only be glad for the Jews in Birobidzhan and see this as an example” of how other nations should be treated.

The situation of the Crimean Tatars in Crimea, unfortunately, has been and continues to be very different. They are “one of the most ancient peoples of the peninsula” and between 1921 and World War II, they had their own national republic – even though at that time they formed “only 19.4 percent of the population of the autonomy according to the 1939 census.”

But then in 1944, Stalin suppressed their republic and deported the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia. Over the last few decades, many Crimean Tatars have returned home and have been able with much effort and despite the opposition of local officials to restore some of what was taken from them.

Unfortunately, their situation remains dire. With regard to language, for example, Makarov says, things could be much better. “Despite the assurances of the Russian president about official trilingualism in Crimea, signs in Crimean Tatar exist only in settlements of Crimean Tatars and in mosques.”

Given that not only Crimean Tatars speak their national language but so too do part of the local Greek population (the Urums) and the Jews (Krymchaks), far more should be done, given that 16 percent of the peninsula’s residents speak that language and are its “most rooted” linguistic group.

Makarov says that the situation in the Jewish Autonomous Region where even though the titular nationality forms less than one percent its language is respected and promoted represents “a positive solution” of the language issue for Crimea. But even more, the differences between Russian policy in the one place and the other raise some serious questions.

First among them is whether the principle Quod licet Jovi, no licet bovi is functioning in Russia? But immediately following that is “who then is Jupiter and who is the bull?” And on the answers to these is the most fateful: is the Russian constitution’s promise of equality for all in fact being carried out?