Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Perm Oblast: Autonomies to Choose From

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Perm Oblast: Autonomies to Choose From

Article excerpt

Although groups are always interest to ethnologists, linguists, culturologists, and other experts in nonpolitical fields, they are usually noticed by political scientists only when they are involved in a conflict--an actual or potential one, or one imagined by the scholar. When the various peoples of the Soviet Union came to the forefront of the country's political life in late 1980s, many scholars both in the West and in the Soviet Union itself observed that, in the words of Neil Melvin,

   [t]he onset of ethnic warfare in Yugoslavia and the sudden collapse of the
   Soviet Union found Western scholarship severely wanting in terms of its
   understanding of nationalism, especially ethno-nationalism, in the former
   communist states ... after decades of neglect nationalism has again become
   a central component of the academic study of Central and Eastern Europe and
   articles and books about nationalism have become something of a growth
   industry.(1)

Such confessions were numerous through the 1990s; nevertheless, the same mistake was repeated more than once.

Pronounced ethnopolitical conflict may tell a lot about the past of the groups involved, as well as about the politics of the country. But such conflict is always an extreme case of social development and as such is not typical. Even in the stormy years of perestroika and its immediate aftermath, probably two or three dozen Soviet peoples were involved in open conflicts, while the rest of the approximately 130 ethnic groups officially listed in the 1989 census remained more or less silent, and thus mostly unnoticed by political scientists.

More than that, any interethnic conflict irreversibly changes the pre-existing situation. Studying ethnopolitics (and the "national question" in general) through the magnifying glass of conflict is like studying the radiance of a remote star whose light is bright and visible, though the star long ago ceased to exist. In the same way we derive information from studying ethnic conflicts--but only about the ethnic groups that entered the conflict; the groups emerging from it are different and demand new studies.

Therefore I believe that it is more useful to study interethnic relations and ethnopolitics during periods of calm. As a case study of contemporary Russian noncrisis ethnopolitics one can examine the situation in Perm oblast. Far from being unique, the region provides an interesting test site for different approaches to regional and local ethnopolitics due to its population's ethnic composition, its history, and recent sociopolitical developments.

Occupying 160,600 square kilometers in the easternmost part of Europe, Perm oblast is situated at the junction of the Russian plain and the Ural mountains. The last Soviet census of 1989 gave its population as 3,091,500. The largest among the region's more than eighty ethnic groups were Russians (83.9 percent of the population), Tatars (4.9 percent), Komi-Permyaks (4.0 percent), Bashkirs (1.7 percent), Ukrainians (1.5 percent), and Udmurts (1.0 percent) (for more details see tables 1 and 2). The ethnic distribution of the population has remained generally unchanged till now.

It may be useful to note that in recent years the oblast proved politically and socially calm by Russian standards. That is not to say that the oblast is free from the problems raised by the Russia-wide crisis; as an example one can mention the forced liquidation of the Kizel coal mining area, which requires the re-education and job placement of thousands of workers. Still, neither the population at large nor the regional authorities tried to exploit these problems to obtain additional benefits, to launch open confrontation with the federal government, or to isolate the oblast from all-Russian economic and social systems. The only attempt of that kind took place in 1994, when the regional legislature decided to withdraw its signature from the Treaty of Social Accord--at that time the beloved child of President Yeltsin, who viewed it as the foundation for political stabilization in Russia. …

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