The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

ETHNIC TENSIONS SMOLDER IN RUSSIA JANUARY 1987

This is the first of many snapshots to predict crucial events to come. It
highlights the importance of simmering ethnic and national tensions, and
it suggests that, in the end, Gorbachev's reforms may destroy, rather than
rejuvenate, the empire. Although other early snapshots capture events and
characters that later prove inconsequential, this snapshot will remain per-
tinent to the very end.

The town of Alma-Ata, in the republic of Kazakhstan, was rocked recently by students protesting the appointment of a Russian to replace their Kazakh leader. The Alma-Ata riots highlight the smoldering ethnic tensions that have thus far been overshadowed by Gorbachev's economic and cultural reforms, and serve as a reminder that Gorbachev cannot afford to ignore these tensions, which, if left unattended, could undermine all that he has achieved.

In many respects, the Russian political elite is now experiencing a backlash comparable to that felt by the leaders of several Western empires. The national intelligentsia and bureaucracy created by the Russians has become ungrateful of late, and the national cadres in Central Asia feel a deep, if studiously concealed, hatred of the Russians comparable to that felt by the English and French colonists.

The Kremlin's maintenance of some national traditions, along with improvements in education ( Moscow has been far more considerate of national republican culture than London and Paris were of Indian or Algerian culture), will only serve to enhance already existing ethnic identities and animosities toward the Russians. Ironically, Moscow's support for, rather than its suppression of, various national cultures has increased the level of ethnic tension throughout the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev's attempts to rejuvenate Soviet society, eliminate corruption in the party, and liberalize cultural and political life are more likely to exacerbate rather than soften ethnic antagonisms. Thus, Gorbachev's "innovations" could actually slow or even halt the modernization process.

Corruption has flourished, especially in the republics where private relations based on kinship and tribalism play a dominant role in local government. Whereas feelings of Soviet patriotism provide some limited motivation to Russian apparatchiks, such feelings are absent from their counterparts in the outlying republics. As a result, Kazakh and Tadzhik

____________________
This article appeared in The Detroit News on January 6, 1987, and as "Smoldering Ethnic Tensions Threaten Gorbachev Regime" in The Los Angeles Times on January 28, 1987.

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