Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Unexpectedly Underwhelming Role of Ethnicity in Russian Politics, 1991-2011

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Unexpectedly Underwhelming Role of Ethnicity in Russian Politics, 1991-2011

Article excerpt

Abstract: The authors explain why ethnicity briefly played a role in Russian politics in the early 1990s and then faded away. They reject explanations that focus on demographic, economic, and other single variables. Instead they explain the early ethnic mobilization by emphasizing the importance of ethnic and cultural institutions at the regional level and whether ethnic entrepreneurs were able to make appeals that resonated with the masses by focusing on perceived ethnic-based labor discrimination. They then show that ethnic appeals ultimately became less important because of Russia's shift to a market economy and the transition of power at the regional level from legislatures to executives.

In the twenty years of Russia's existence, one of its most notable yet underappreciated achievements is the fact that ethnicity has played a very minor and non-divisive role in Russian politics. The Russian Federation is a multi-ethnic, culturally diverse state in which officially-recognized ethnic minorities form 20 percent of the population. Yet political parties are not organized by nationality, voting has not occurred according to ethnic affiliation, and ethno-national separatism among the republics has dissipated. All of this is perhaps not very remarkable in the increasingly centralized and authoritarian system that Putin has established. But even before Putin's federal reforms chipped away at the autonomy that certain Russian regions had gained during the 1990s, ethnicity failed to emerge as a relevant cleavage around which politics in the Russian Federation was organized. Why? This outcome may seem puzzling, given that Russia inherited from the USSR over 100 officially recognized ethnic minorities, and over twenty ethnically-defined sub-federal territories with boundaries drawn around putative "homelands" of certain minorities. Moreover, serious campaigns for ethnic separatism developed among several ethnic republics in the early 1990s, at the same time that communities throughout Eastern Europe were asserting their right to nation-states. In fact, the threat of ethno-national secession was so substantial that many Russian leaders and Western observers at the time feared that Russia would follow the disintegration of the Soviet Union along ethnic lines. Yet support for ethno-national separatism in Russia's republics faded after only a few years, with the important exception of Chechnya. And it did not recur in the late 1990s, despite the acute financial crisis and a very weak central state made even weaker by the violent, senseless war with Chechnya.

How can we make sense of the transient politicization of ethnic identity in Russian politics, especially when we know that ethnic identities continue to be deeply felt by members of Russia's ethnic minorities and that sub-state ethnic administrative territories (i.e., republics) continue to exist? This article examines why ethno-national separatism among Russia's republics developed and then dissipated in the early 1990s, as well as why it did not re-emerge in the late 1990s as a viable threat to Russia's integrity. It also briefly considers the role that ethnicity plays in the more recent political mobilizations in the North Caucasus, especially Dagestan.

Analysis of the post-Soviet politics literature on ethnic mobilization in both the Soviet Union and Russia suggests several key points for understanding why the politicization of ethnicity is not an enduring feature of Russian politics. First, it is critical to understand the fundamental nature of the relationship between ethnic identity and political mobilization. Work by many post-Soviet politics scholars has made much progress in this regard, putting to rest essentialist explanations that view ethnic group mobilization as based on cultural differences and thus inevitable. Second, it is important to recognize the existence of variation in ethnic mobilization at the mass level across Russia's republics. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.