Putin harnesses Russian nationalism to boost presidential bid

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says that multiethnic Russia cannot survive as a US-style 'melting pot' but must find its own way. 

Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the development of the Russian coal sector in the city of Kemerovo, Monday. Putin has penned a lengthy article on Russian nationalism, to boost presidential bid.

Off and running in the presidential election that is now just over a month away, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has penned a lengthy article on nationalism, potentially Russia's most explosive issue. 

In the article, Mr. Putin warns that nationalist agitators, both those representing the ethnic Russian majority and those speaking for the country's multitude of small minorities, are growing voices of destruction that threaten to drive Russia down the path of a Soviet-style breakup. 

It's Mr. Putin's second program statement in less than a month, reportedly written by three speechwriters and republished on his official campaign website. Experts say it raises some very real dangers posed by Russia's ethnic and religious complexity, but offers only more state control and curbs on democracy by way of solution.

Among other things, Putin calls for tougher controls on internal migration and illegal immigration from outside Russia, a clampdown on "separatist" political parties, and the creation of a new state agency to regulate interethnic relations. He suggests language testing for immigrants, to make sure they speak Russian, and also calls for creation of a list of 100 books that embody the "self-identity" of Russia, which would be mandatory reading for every Russian student. 

Racist tensions are growing in Russia, particularly in large urban centers like Moscow that host huge communities of darker-skinned and often Muslim "migrants" from Russia's impoverished and strife-torn north Caucasus region, as well as millions of "guest workers" – who often live in legal limbo – from the now independent republics of former Soviet Central Asia

Though ethnic Russians make up about 80 percent of Russia's 140 million people, many minorities are concentrated in 20 Soviet-era ethnic republics, where they enjoy privileged status for their own languages and cultures. Moscow has fought two brutal wars since the Soviet collapse to keep Chechnya, a Caucasus republic, from seceding. Putin has warned that separatist passions could strike in many places besides the North Caucasus, including Siberia and the Volga region. 

Just over a year ago, thousands of ethnic Russian ultranationalists rampaged in downtown Moscow to protest what they called police inaction over the killing of one of their own in a gang fight with youths from the Caucasus. 

"There is a serious threat of extremism," as Russia's ultranationalists become increasingly politicized, says Alla Gerber, president of the Holocaust Foundation in Moscow. "More and more people have adopted the ideology of 'Russia for the Russians,' which means that everyone else is an 'alien'."

No US 'melting pot' or European 'multiculturalism'

Ms. Gerber says it's good that Putin has opened up this discussion, because there has been too little official response to the growing interethnic threat to Russia's social stability, but she worries that there are too many contradictions in his thinking. "When discussing migrants, for instance, Putin seems to adopt the ideas of the [ultranationalist] Movement Against Illegal Immigration, and his only prescription is to toughen up on them, tighten all the rules." 

Putin argues that Russia is a vast multiethnic entity, created on the ruins of the vast Russian and Soviet empires, that cannot survive as a US-style "melting pot" nor as a European "multicultural" society. Russia needs to find its own way. 

"The Russian experience of state development is unique," Putin wrote. "Ours is a multiethnic society. We are a united people. But when a multi-ethnic society is infected with the virus of nationalism, it loses its strength and stability. …" 

"The Russian people are state-builders, as evidenced by the existence of Russia. This kind of civilizational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture, although this culture is represented not only by ethnic Russians, but by all the holders of this identity, regardless of their ethnicity. It is a kind of cultural code which has been attacked ever more often over the past few years; hostile forces have been trying to break it, and yet, it has survived. It needs to be supported, strengthened and protected," he wrote. 

Keeping the nationalist card under control

While analysts say many of Putin's ideas sound OK, a few are head-scratchers, such as his call for a crackdown on internal migrants whose behavior displays an "inappropriate, aggressive, defiant, or disrespectful" attitude toward the culture and customs of the majority. "This behavior should be met with a legal, but harsh response," he wrote. 

"One has an unpleasant reaction to this article," says Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, a Moscow-based grassroots movement. "Some of it sounds like cheap populism aimed at stealing the thunder of nationalist groups who are now in opposition to his regime." 

Putin's logic is not fully spelled out, leaving dangerous ambiguities, Mr. Ponomaryov adds. "For example, his idea that Russians are, historically, the 'state-forming' people could be interpreted different ways, and could be easily abused. It could become a rationale for having more ethnic Russians in high posts, for instance. If we heard these words out of the mouth of an avowed nationalist politician, it [would] be truly scary," Mr. Ponomaryov says. 

On the other hand, Putin attacked key some Russian nationalist positions, including the demand that the Russian government cut off economic subsidies to the impoverished North Caucasus. Putin ridiculed that idea, which is strongly supported by popular blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as the kind of destructive thinking that led straight to the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago. 

"Putin's basic idea is that different nations can exist [within Russia], but there is no chance for them to enjoy self-determination. Also, Russia should be as big as possible," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"It's basically a position in favor of imperialism and Russian chauvinism, and that will appeal to nationalists.… Putin is trying to play the nationalist card, but mainly to keep it from slipping out of his control."

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