Monday, June 27, 2016

Putin’s ‘Hybrid War’ Against Russia’s Smallest Nationalities

By Paul Goble

Moscow’s approach to the country’s smallest non-Russian nationalities has historically been measured by the opening and closing of schools, the level of support for non-Russian language institutions, the share of officials from indigenous nationalities in key positions, and so on. Over the past decade, the Russian government’s approach has not been good even on these measurements. But lately, Vladimir Putin has adopted a “hybrid” strategy that is even more negative: specifically, the Russian government has been relying on market forces as well as on the use of nominally ethnically-neutral regulations to undermine or coerce some of Russia’s smallest nationalities. Both hit these minute groups far harder than the surrounding ethnic-Russian communities. Thus, this “hybrid” strategy must be factored into any assessment of Putin’s nationality policy.

Like its Soviet predecessors, the Putin regime has ignored the rights of indigenous peoples whenever the recognition of these rights limit top–down economic development goals. That has been particularly true in the development of the oil and natural gas industry in Russia’s northern regions, where Moscow has tilted the playing field against the indigenous populations and in favor of the oil and gas developers (, November 18, 2014;, May 4, 2016;, May 11, 2016). In recent weeks, the central government has done the same thing with regard to the coal industry, allowing its leading firms to ride roughshod over the claims of the indigenous ethnic groups (, accessed June 27).

Perhaps even more important to the fate of the smaller nationalities of Russia—that is, those with fewer than 100,000 members each—Moscow has ended many of its subsidies to them and left them to face market forces alone. Inevitably, this has the effect of limiting the ability of these communities to have media and schools in their own languages, and it forces members of these groups to shift to Russian as their primary language (for examples of this trend in the Middle Volga, see, November 10, 2015).

Two Russian policies announced in recent weeks show that calling Putin’s approach to the smaller nationalities a “hybrid” war is fully justified—specifically, his government is achieving certain goals by taking indirect actions while denying that this is what Moscow is doing. The two cases have not attracted much attention because they involve two groups who live in the Russian Far East: the Orochi, who number under a thousand, and the Udege, who number approximately 1,500.

In the former case, Russian authorities issued a ban on the use of nets to catch fish, something that they have pointed out affects members of all groups. But the reality is that it hits the Orochi and other traditional peoples hardest because that is their primary means of securing enough food (, June 12). And in the latter case, Russian officials have ignored a court order requiring them to hand over land that the Udege have traditionally used for raising food, apparently convinced that there is no reason that the members of that nationality should be so privileged (Regnum, June 22).

More such cases undoubtedly exist. Indeed, by using such “hybrid” means, Putin achieves what earlier Russian rulers could not: the destruction of ancient and unique cultures of peoples who have, often inadvertently, stood in the way of Moscow’s economic goals.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ethnic Balance Shifting Against Moscow East of the Urals

By Paul Goble

In Soviet times, the predominantly Russian Slavic share of the population east of the Urals rose to 80 percent, overwhelming the non-Russians there and ensuring Moscow’s control. This eastward migration of Slavs came about both as a result of state coercion under Joseph Stalin and thanks to large subsidies for workers prepared to live far from European Russia. But with the collapse of subsidies starting in Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, the Slavic share of the population in that enormous region has fallen to 60 percent, with the non-Slavic share rising to 40 percent. If current trends continue, the two groups will be roughly equal in size within a decade, and the non-Russians will be a majority within two—a shift that parallels but is far greater and more rapid than that of Russia as a whole.

That is the conclusion of Yury Aksyutin, a specialist on demography and ethnic regions, in an article in the current issue of Novyye Issledovaniya Tuvy (, June 2). Aksyutin focuses on the change in the ethnic composition of populations of specific regions and republics. His research shows non-Russians increasing relative to Russians in many of these territories even more rapidly than they are in Siberia and the Russian Far East as a whole. If anything, this trend is intensifying as aging Russian populations die off or depart and younger non-Russian groups have more children—even though their fertility rates are falling toward all-Russia averages, as Russian scholars invariably point out.

This trend has important domestic and foreign policy implications. Domestically, it almost certainly means that non-Russians in the titular republics will demand more positions be given to them rather than to Russian minders. This could set the stage for conflicts both within the political elite and in broader society, between the newly self-confident rising non-Russian populations and the declining and departing ethnic-Russian ones. If Moscow concedes the point to the non-Russians, it will have less leverage over these areas; if it does not, it will face a new round of rising nationalism and various kinds of ethnic assertiveness, possibly including a restart of the parade of sovereignties, which in the early 1990s threatened to break apart the Russian Federation (, June 17).

And internationally, it has an impact on Russian national security. Compared to ethnic Russians, the non-Russians in Siberia and the Russian Far East are far more welcoming of the Chinese and Mongolians, viewing them as fellow Asiatics who have also been oppressed by “European” colonial powers. That has already led to a resurgence of pan-Mongol thinking about the Tuvins and to greater cultural and economic ties between Beijing and leaders of the non-Russian regions of Russia east of the Urals. As the population shift continues and the Russian economy declines, such relationships will only multiply and deepen, adding to Moscow’s security concerns about the expansion of Chinese influence there.

One immediate consequence is already apparent: Many of the non-Russians in this region are choosing to study Chinese as their preferred second or third language and are attending universities in China.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Volga Tatars in Iran Being Turkmenified

By Paul Goble

Many observers are aware that ethnic Azerbaijanis constitute more than a quarter of the population of Iran, but fewer have taken note of the fact that other Turkic groups from the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation are present in that country and are undergoing some remarkable ethnic and political transformations. Perhaps the largest of these, and certainly the one with the most resonance in Russia today, are the Volga Tatars, who arrived in several waves over the last century but who are treated by the Iranians as Turkmens and, consequently, are being “Turkmenified.”

A rare window on that community was recently provided by Kazan’s Real Time news agency, which has both interviewed specialists on Turkic groups in Iran and conducted its own research into a national diaspora few have ever heard of (Real Time, June 2, 3). The reason for this new focus lies in Kazan not Iran: Recently, under pressure from Moscow, Kazan Federal University closed its Tatar studies faculty; and the Real Time news agency has been publishing materials on Tatar communities abroad in order to make the argument that Kazan needs to restore that scholarly center in order to keep track of developments across the Volga Tatar world.

Volga Tatars have resided in what is now Iran for more than a millennium, but the largest recent group to arrive was composed of those who fled Soviet power in the 1920s and 1930s, for religious or ethnic reasons. No one knows exactly how many Volga Tatars live in Iran. (Some estimates put their number in Iran as high as 30,000.) The Iranian census avoids asking about ethnic identities. And according to experts like Gorgun University’s Arazmuhamad Sarly, himself an ethnic Turkmen, many of the Volga Tatars have assimilated to the Turkmen community and are viewed both by most Turkmens and almost all Persians as part of that community given that they have learned Turkmen, intermarry routinely, and share culture activities. One of the few remaining distinctions is that, in many places, the Volga Tatars still prefer to be buried in their own national cemeteries (Real Time, June 2).

Turkmen-language publications currently exist in Iran, and many of them contain stories about the Volga Tatars in Iran and in their homeland. But so far, according to Sarly, the Volga Tatars of Iran do not have their own publications or public associations, preferring instead to participate in those of the Turkmens, who are estimated to number as many as 100,000 in Iran. The Turkmen scholar told the Kazan news agency that he would welcome cooperation with Tatarstani scholars to study this group (Real Time, June 2).

It will be interesting to see whether Moscow promotes or allows such contacts to take place. On the one hand, the Russian government would certainly like to have more information about a potential ally, however small, within Iran that it could use to pressure Tehran. But on the other, Moscow may be quite reluctant to allow Tatarstan to be the point of contact because of the possibility that religious influence could flow from Iran into the Middle Volga region.