Meeting Report Vol. 2, No. 7, Oct. 30, 2000

On October 30, 2000 Carnegie Endowment Senior Associate Thomas Graham hosted a lunch meeting with Emil Pain, an expert on ethnic conflict and ethnic relations in the Former Soviet Union and currently the Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. In a provocative presentation, Pain shared his views on such topics as the Chechen conflict, ethnic separatism and the rebirth of Russian nationalism. We provide below a summary of his remarks and the discussion that followed.


Introduction: The change in ethnic policy

Emil Pain began the presentation by defining his task as an attempt to describe "new ethnic tendencies, which directly influence political stability in Russia." These new tendencies include ethnic separatism and the changing relationship between federal power and several republics in the Russian Federation. Contrary to some experts' beliefs, the relationship between Moscow and the republics during Yeltsin's regime was not characterized by anarchy, Pain insisted. He went on to describe a "secret pact against radical nationalism" made in 1993 between Yeltsin and the heads of the republics. The effectiveness of this agreement was confirmed by the absence of any manifestation of separatism, save for Chechnya, during Yeltsin's presidency. Pain also countered the assumption that Putin is bringing order and stability to center-regional relations. Indeed, in response to Putin's pressure on the leaders of the republics, there has been a resurgence of national-separatist strength in the regions.

The Impact of the Chechen Conflict

Undoubtedly, the continuing war in the North Caucasus has contributed to the revival of nationalist sentiment in Russian republics. Yet, Pain suggested that the Chechen struggle for independence had not always been a mobilizing factor -- "destitute and criminal Chechnya did not inspire anyone." If "Russia had cut out Chechnya like a cancerous tumor," Pain argued, other republics would not have followed. However, as the Chechen conflict drags on and on, solidarity with this breakaway republic appears to be on the rise. Pain named three groups that are starting to identify with the Chechens -- non-Russian nationalists, Islamic nationalists and all "offended nationalities," resentful of being stereotyped as "terrorists" on the basis of their dark skin.

While both the death toll and the economic cost of carrying on the war in Chechnya are increasing, no prospect of victory is evident, Pain maintained. Demoralization of Russian troops and their inability to use real advantages in guerrilla-type warfare preclude a clear military triumph. As for an economic victory, Pain insisted that it is "utopian to speak of turning the Chechens back to Russia through economic restoration of their republic." Besides the human and economic costs, the protracted war in Chechnya is having a direct negative effect on other national-separatist groups within the Russian Federation. "Rebels stop being afraid," Pain suggested, "thus activating other nationalities, such as Tatars, who begin thinking that if the Russian army cannot achieve victory over less than 400,000 Chechens, how could they overcome 6 million Tatars?" While confident that Russia will have to leave Chechnya sooner or later, Emil Pain wondered about the influence this withdrawal would have on Russian overall development.

Ethnic Composition and the Threat of Disintegration

Besides the unresolved Chechen conflict, one of the biggest challenges facing Russia is the problem of the changing ethnic composition of the population. Although today Russians constitute 83 percent of the population in the Russian Federation, they are already in the minority in some regions, such as the North Caucasus. In the Far East, illegal immigration is expected to make the Chinese "the ethnic majority on the biggest part of Russian territory" in 10-15 years, Pain noted. And in Povolzhye (Volga regions), Russians are already in the minority in Chuvashia, and close to losing their majority in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Chuvashis, Tatars and Bashkirs, all belonging to the same Turkic group, are speaking of uniting and creating a federation, which, Pain stressed, would be larger than the territory covered by the Baltics and Georgia combined.

The changes occurring in Russia are threatening the integrity of the Russian Federation. Pain identified two kinds of potential disintegration. The first is peripheral secession, which would involve Russian border republics, such as Chechnya, splitting off and becoming independent. The second type of disintegration is the collapse of the country due to "the formation of one or two large states in the middle of the Russian Federation." This, in Pain's opinion, could occur in Povolzhye, and it would be much more dangerous for Russia. Pain stressed that "the probability of either type of disintegration will greatly depend on overall economic development." He suggested that if economic growth continues to increase, peripheral secession could still be expected, but the second type of disintegration would then be more unlikely.

The Future Ethnic Doctrine

Threatened by disintegration, the Russian government will have to adopt some kind of political doctrine to prevent secession and collapse. Pain named two alternative approaches to increasing cohesion in Russian society, with one being preferable and the other, more likely. The best way to ward off disintegration, according to Pain, is through promotion of a multicultural society. To implement this idea, the Russian government would have to go through a radical change in the present course of ethnic politics, allowing for inclusion of all nationalities in the political elite, curbing the domination of Russian Orthodox Church, and "establishing government symbols less connected to pure Russian-specific features."

Unfortunately, while helping Minister of Trade and Economic Reform German Gref to prepare part of his program, Pain saw that "the idea of a multicultural society is absolutely foreign to current powers and the majority of Russian population." Thus, the government is more inclined to adopt the second method of social consolidation, one based on the recent growth of Russian nationalism. The symptoms of this development are already manifest: "xenophobia and suspicion of the West are growing as nationalistic consolidation needs an external enemy," Pain pointed out. An ethnic doctrine based on Russian nationalism would stimulate militarization of the Russian economy, thus corresponding to social expectations. Pain concluded his presentation by suggesting that although firm establishment of nationalism, imperialism and militarism could temporarily suspend disintegration, these doctrines are harmful to the overall development of Russia.

The Discussion Period

Emil Pain's remarks inspired a very stimulating exchange of opinions. The discussion focused on clarifying the following points, made by the speaker during his presentation:
· War in Chechnya. Pain insisted that even in July of 1999, most Russian military leaders were convinced that an invasion of Chechnya was infeasible. However, after the Chechens were forced to withdraw from Dagestan, the generals along with the Russian people started to believe in victory under Putin's leadership. Pain suggested that this stemmed from Russians' tendency to "expect miracles." Yet even today Chechnya is an unmanageable territory, with soldiers dying mostly in Grozny, not in the mountains. Pain predicted that although Russia would not leave Chechnya anytime soon, maybe by the 2004 elections Moscow will realize that the costs outweigh the benefits in this case.
· Impact of the Chechen conflict and ethnic separatism. When asked about the importance of Chechnya, Pain argued that its fate would not have a dramatic direct impact on Russian development, as it occupies a tiny territory and plays no economic role anymore. Nevertheless, war is a radicalizing factor, and the politicization of Islam is dangerous for Russia. Thus, Pain regretted that the Russian government did not nurture Maskhadov, who had outlawed the radicalized version of Islam, wahhabism, in Chechnya. As he had mentioned in the presentation, Pain believed that the war in Chechnya is serving as a catalyst for the development of ethno-separatist sentiment in other Russian regions, like Tatarstan. When asked about the politicization of Muslims outside Tatarstan, Pain suggested that "all Islamic communities outside Tatarstan, like those in Astrakhan and Stavropol, are wahhabi." This is caused by their lack of traditions and their education in Saudi Arabia. Yet, Pain supposed that these communities are too small to serve as a mobilizing factor for Islamic nationalism.
· Russian nationalism. Repeating the argument made in his presentation, Pain stressed that dramatic changes are taking place in Russian self-consciousness. What Russians need to realize is that their main task is preservation of the territory. However, at the present time, they are unwilling to compromise, hence electing Putin with his nationalist and imperialist policies. Responding to a question about the role of Gref's team in ethnic policy, Pain said that "these people do not have time to deal with this issue." Pain also stressed that if Russian nationalism continues to develop, so will other kinds of nationalism. And a potential collision of Tatar and Bashkir nationalism with Russian nationalism will not be resolved peacefully.
· Economic development. Pain was asked to justify his assumption that economic development will improve matters and prevent the collapse of Russia. He argued that even though economic development by itself does not resolve the ethnic problem, together with other factors of stabilization, such as domestic and foreign policies, it will reduce the chances of complete disintegration of Russia.
· Migration Policy. In answering a question about migration policy as a potential solution to labor deficit, Pain suggested that the Chinese immigration could be a real supplement to the labor force in the Far East. He also proposed that migration from the Caucasus might improve the situation, because "in Siberia, unlike in Moscow, the people of Caucasian descent are liked, while the Chinese are not."
· The Western factor. When asked about the impact of Western policy in fueling or curbing Russian nationalism, Pain smiled and replied that foreign influence does not affect current Russian policies in any significant way. In fact, the West has less sway now than at any other time in the past. Nonetheless, Pain noted that the opinion of foreign leaders has an effect on President Putin, who cares about his reputation abroad.

Summary by Victoria Levin, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.