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Russian authorities try to resolve ethnic tension with no experience in the matter

September 25, 2013, 16:17 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, September 25 (Itar-Tass) - The problem of ethnic distinctions and of the assimilation of migrants these days is a major issue in Russia, just as in many West European countries. Of late, Russia (just like France at a certain point in the past) saw a lively discussion whether Muslim girls can be allowed to wear hijabs at schools and universities. Muscovites are really shocked by outdoor celebrations of Uraza-Bayram (Russia’s equivalent of Eid al-Fitr - the Feast of Breaking the Fast), when tens of thousands of Central Asia-born guests kneel on the streets of Moscow for praying.

Migration from the North Caucasus republics to the country’s ethnically Russian regions has caused many clashes of customs, traditions and cultures. Noisy North Caucasus wedding motorcades racing along city streets, with guests firing shots in the air, are a common occurrence these days. North Caucasus youths are in the habit of dancing fiery ethnic dances in urban squares both for a good reason or without any reason at all, which causes angry responses from the local population. The rates of ethnicity-related crimes keep soaring.

This theme, quite often sidestepped as a taboo, is central to Wednesday’s article in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta by Kirill Rodionov, a researcher at the Russian Academy of the Economy and the Civil Service under the Presidential Office. In part, the analyst says: “Modern Russia is a country still in transition from an empire to a nation state. Inside the Russian Federation there are many regions that have not yet become an integral part of the Russian cultural space. The processes of re-islamization and de-russification kept gaining momentum in the North Caucasus for the past twenty years.

In the meantime, a common culture is a major prerequisite for the unity of the political and legal space, the scholar says. Conversely, the lack of cultural bonds between certain regions may often cause the country to collapse. This is precisely what happened to the Soviet Union, which fell apart along ethnic and civilizational lines.

It is commonly believed that the institutions of a democratic state ruled by law cannot exist outside a homogenous cultural environment. Creating such an environment is the aim of the concept of multi-culturalism, which emerged and became widely spread in Europe in the last third of the 20th century to provide a basis for the massive attraction of migrants from Asian and African countries. The advocates of that concept regard it as a crucial parameter of modern society as represented by a wide diversity of cultures: people of different creeds and nations are to learn to live side by side without giving up their ethnic identity.

Rodionov argues, though, that the past four decades have provided ample evidence this concept does not hold water. “An overwhelming majority of migrants from the former colonies and their descendants have failed to become integrated in the new societies to retain their ethnic identity. As soon as they receive access to the conveniences of the European civilization, the new arrivals jumped at the opportunity to dictate habits and traditions common in their parent countries. The massive riots in the streets of Paris in 2005, London in 2011 and Stockholm in 2013 were convincing proof of that.

Modern Russia is making the same migration policy mistakes that France and Britain committed in the post-war years. Rodionov urges the intellectual community to discuss “the problem of cultural expansion from Central Asia and the North Caucasus and to safeguard the right of the indigenous residents of Russia’s ethnically Russian regions to protect their culture.” “Otherwise the attempts to build a well-functioning democracy will be doomed. Just as the existence of Russia,” the scholar warned.

Russia’s leading expert on inter-ethnic affairs Emil Pain, the general director of the Ethnic and Political Studies Centre at the Higher School of Economics, has responded to Rodionov’s invitation to discuss this sensitive theme many prefer to avoid. Pain has told Itar-Tass in an interview “the opponents of multi-culturalism criticize it from the standpoint of nationalist demands for assimilation and for the replacement of the natural cultural diversity existing in a majority of advanced countries with the domination of just one culture.”

“The modern nationalities policy these days should aim at not building some sort of hierarchy, not at giving newcomers from other republics fewer rights than Russians enjoy, but at the equality of legal norms,” Pain said. “Postulating the incompatibility of different ethnic groups within one state is savage. By this weird logic all migrants should be given the status of slaves, the way it was done in ancient Rome. It is as preposterous to argue that some cultures are no good for democracy. International experience itself refutes such assumptions,” Pain told ITAR-TASS.

He recalls that “the system of evaluations that has taken shape in the world today leaves no room for such terms as “big brother”, “master people,” “the main people” and “not the main people.” All modern critics of multi-culturalism argue that it does not provide for the integration of people in a single state, Pain said. In his opinion the problems of inter-cultural relations in Russia are far more complex than they are in Europe. “In Russia, inter-cultural problems arise not only in view of soaring immigration, but also in relations between Russian citizens of different nationalities and religions, between residents of different republics of the Russian Federation. Research carried out over many years indicates that since the mid-1990s the ethnic majority displays the greatest dislike not towards migrants from other countries, but towards fellow citizens from the republics in the North Caucasus. This social discontent ever more often manifests itself as ethnic and religious phobias.”

Pain claims that the Russian authorities have no idea of how to resolve this problem. “After unrest by Russian nationalists in Manezh square near the Kremlin on December 11, 2010 (the strongest in post-Soviet history) the then president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, declared there was a need for recognizing Russian culture as the dominating one, as a sort of a standard all other cultures should use as a benchmark. In fact, he backed the idea of monoculturalism. One month later, though, Medvedev tried to exonerate the word “multiculturalism. He said the widely-spread slogan declaring the failure of multi-culturalism as a policy was inapplicable in Russia. “The question which idea the Russian authorities tend to share these days remains open,” Pain said.