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Analysis & Opinion
16.09.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Is Multiculturalism Bad For Russia?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Elena Miskova

President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that ethnic tensions are rising in Russia, but cracking down too hard would undermine stability. Medvedev was addressing the Yaroslavl Global Policy Forum, where he looked into the requirements for a modern state in the age of social and cultural diversity. Is multiculturalism bad for Russia? Is the mounting conflict between ethnic Russians and Caucasians threatening Russian statehood and its territorial integrity? Is there a way to preserve the North Caucasus as part of Russia in the long run?

Medvedev’s basic message is that in the age of globalization, the Internet and the explosion of social media, more and more people of different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, religious beliefs and behavioral norms will be thrown together, within the borders of traditional nation states. This creates a challenge for democratic governance that the leaders of the 21st century will have to address, by making the government more nimble, more sophisticated and more complex, in order to be able to hear and respond to diverse but legitimate grievances on behalf of all social and ethnic groups.

Medvedev sees this as a particularly acute problem for Russia. “This is a very important issue for our country. The Russian Federation is an example of unique social, cultural and political diversity. We forget it in our day-to-day lives, even those of us living in Russia, but we must remember this. We have 180 peoples and ethnic groups living our country, and in addition to our regions and territories, Russia has autonomous areas and republics. We are a multi-faith nation, in the fullest sense of the word. Unfortunately, interethnic tension is spreading to more and more places. Domestic migration is mainly flowing from the south to the north. Many of our citizens from the Caucasus are moving to places traditionally inhabited by ethnic Russians, while the ethnic Russian population in the Caucasus republics is gradually declining. This is leading to negative consequences: ethnic and cultural closed-mindedness in some regions, and the emergence of ethnic tensions in other regions. Poverty is becoming a powerful catalyst for interethnic conflicts. In particular, xenophobia and intolerance are spreading most rapidly among the poorest social groups, as in the rest of the world,” he said.

But Medvedev’s answers do not meet these challenges. He did not venture much beyond the standard fare of enforcing the rule of law and the equality of individual rights. “Everyone must certainly adhere to the law, the basic norms of behavior, and be respectful of other people's customs. Anyone who commits a crime or does not adhere to these principles when moving to a new location must be punished. The same applies to those who infringe on the rights of minorities,” he said.

Although he did not specifically endorse the European concept of multiculturalism or “multikulti,” as it is derisively called by critics in Russia, he came very close to saying that this is the way for Russia to curb mounting ethnic tensions. “But ensuring law and order cannot serve as cause for discriminating against members of minority or majority groups on the basis of ethnicity. All of Russia's ethnic cultures must develop independently, and each citizen must have the opportunity to live where he or she wants, in any region. Otherwise, we will not have a unified nation. And we must understand this,” Medvedev said.

This is exactly something Medvedev’s Envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin took issue with, as he lambasted “multikulti” in his speech at the same forum in Yaroslavl. Rogozin argued that the policy of ethnic tolerance and multiculturalism has failed spectacularly in Europe as a means of integrating immigrants from Africa and the Arab world into modern European culture. On the contrary, it breeds cultural segregation, as immigrants seek to establish their own closed communities in major European cities.

He further argued that for Russia, the problem is much worse, as the ethnic and cultural fault line falls not between Russians and foreign-born immigrants (although in Rogozin’s view, some immigrant ethnic groups enjoy a “privileged status”), but between ethnic Russians and the inhabitants of the Russian North Caucasus. He cites an opinion survey that says some 50 to 75 percent of Russians favor separating all or parts of the North Caucasus from Russia.

Rogozin believes that the problem lies in the privileged status that some ethnic republics, particularly in the North Caucasus, enjoy as part of the Russian Federation, making them “more equal than the Russian Slavic regions.” In fact, Rogozin claims that certain ethnic republics, such as Chechnya, are nothing less than legal offshore zones, where Russian law does not apply, while ethnic and religious ties substitute for the rule of law. This results, Rogozin claims, in the gross disrespect and disregard that the inhabitants of the North Caucasus show to ethnic Russians and Russian cultural norms as they move to major Russian metropolitan areas. He says that ethnic Russians will not tolerate their unequal status and will demand justice in a forceful way, as the nationalist riots in central Moscow showed last year.

Rogozin’s proposals to deal with the problem are not radical, either – equal justice under the law for all citizens, elimination of legal offshore zones in Chechnya and elsewhere, a national dialogue on ethnic and intercultural issues, promotion of Russian culture as a foundation for building Russian civilization and a modern Russian state. These convey, however, a sense that Rogozin may be raising the exact issue that everyone in the Russian elite knows is important, but is afraid to talk about in free political discourse.

Is “ multikulti” bad for Russia? Who seems to be more on the money on Russia’s interethnic problems: Medvedev or Rogozin? Who provides a better answer to a rise in ethnic tensions within the Russian society between ethnic Russians and the minorities of the North Caucasus? Is the mounting conflict between Russians and Caucasians threatening Russian statehood and its territorial integrity? Is there a way to preserve the North Caucasus as part of Russia in the long run?

Elena Miskova, Managing Partner, LEFF Group Public Relations, Moscow

Criticism of multiculturalism is gathering steam. What do Europeans find wrong with this concept, having practiced it for many years? Mostly, they find fault with boundless tolerance – a direct consequence of cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism used to be a form of repentance on the part of colonial nations toward their former colonies. It posited that all cultures are equal, all deserve respect and tolerance toward even the most exotic and shocking cultural norms, habits and traditions.

When Europe was swamped with immigrants from Africa and Asia, the Europeans sought to “culturalize” them through the same methods – by their interests and affinities. While granting maximum space for their indigenous cultures, the Europeans have sought to limit their practice to performance and entourage. The Europeans thought that they would exchange their own “orientalism” for the goodwill and hard-working habits of the immigrant workers. Everything went smoothly, until the system broke down.

While repenting, both ritually and sincerely, for their colonialism, the Europeans nevertheless had no intention of ceding their own cultural and social positions, especially, their social institutions and norms, since it’s the social institutions that form the centuries-old framework of European culture. While accepting and even promoting tribalism in their former colonies, they were less than prepared to import it to their home countries along with immigrants from the former colonies.

Nevertheless, tribalism got into Europe and began to gain strength, feeding on the immigrants’ revulsion toward European culture, its institutions and cultural norms, which required great effort to accept, or feeding on the contempt and protest against the phony practices of ritual tolerance. That Europeans will certainly rebuff and repel the onslaught of clannish and tribal secularism against their social unity is obvious. Less apparent is the form this process will take, but it is merely a matter of time.

But why Russian nationalists, led by Rogozin, are gloating over the demise of multiculturalism is beyond comprehension. Sure, its “collapse” is a pretext for a crusade against permissiveness toward immigrants’ behavior in Russia. But the “crusade” is also absolutely ritual and imitational. Well-fed Russian nationalists are incapable of extremist behavior. All they can do is pompously pontificate on their inaccurate reading of Russian history. For instance, at the Yaroslavl Forum, Rogozin said that under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin former Soviet national autonomies within the Russian Federation had been granted a special “national status” with special rights and privileges, compared to ethnically Russian regions. Rogozin, apparently, is unaware that the Bolsheviks granted the ethnic Soviet republics a broad special status with at least a declaratory right of secession from the Soviet Union. He labels the Russian North Caucuses as a “legal and political offshore zone,” while failing to mention that without such “offshore zones” there would never have been the Russian Empire that Rogozin so admires.

Most importantly, Rogozin and his ilk fail to comprehend, much less think about, where they would erect this citadel against the immigrant “barbarians” and their low culture – on what platform and with what framework and wiring? The reason immigrant workers in Russia are naturally blending in the Russian cultural space is that there has long been no cultural or social barrier that they would have to surmount in this country.

Why? One of the classic definitions of “tribalism” gives a comprehensive answer to that question, as well as describing neatly the social and political order we have been living in, even in the heart of Russia – Moscow. It goes like this: tribalism is a societal and political grouping that seeks to form and dominate bodies of government on the basis of kinship and tribal links, practicing tribal rivalry and the exclusion of members of rival tribes. Sound familiar? And in Russia, the most bellicose and bloodthirsty “tribes” are not ethnically based.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Multiculturalism is a concept with an elusive meaning and is too often subject to radical and extremist interpretations. In particular, multiculturalism in Western Europe and in Russia is fundamentally two different phenomena, and extrapolating from one to the other is bad science.

One should add a priori that in America, multiculturalism (called diversity) which has largely inspired the ideology in Western Europe, has yet another significance altogether. In the United States, multiculturalism is complicated by its history of slavery, racial segregation and discrimination, and the mistreatment of Native Americans.

In Western Europe multiculturalism was intended as a vehicle to adapt waves of low-skilled economic migrants from cultures so alien to Europe that they were equated to arrivals from a different planet. Now intelligent and fair-minded Europeans are forced to admit that the program has essentially failed. The success of the multicultural experiment is so limited that it is statistically irrelevant, and Western European society now has to solve unexpected problems, or sink into growing ethnic anarchy, or succumb to ethnic extremism. Norway’s Anders Breivik may indeed be a sign of an emerging and potentially overwhelming social disaster.

The key to the failure of the Western European multicultural model is that the immigrants mostly refuse to accept the norms of the receiving European societies. In cases where such recognition is present (e.g. Caribbean and Latin American immigrants), friction is minimal, and multiculturalism generally succeeds. In other cases, where there is an intentional disregard for the basic and not very onerous customs of the host countries (for example, rules that maintain the empowerment of women, contrary to the traditions of female subjugation in the original cultures of the immigrants) – multiculturalism fails.

The harmonious contact of diverse cultures depends on symmetry and reciprocity. Western European ideologues of multiculturalism bent over backward to “accept” incoming aliens into European milieus; the immigrants perceive this attitude as a sign of foolishness and weakness, which is therefore not worthy of reciprocity.

The concept of law is exceptionally significant in these interactions. The European side perceives law as a universal moral imperative, which has an absolute and independent authority. The non-integrating immigrants perceive the law as a particular coercion, relative and dependent on which side wields physical power.

Russia’s multicultural situation is quite different from Western Europe’s. Most ethnic groups in Russia have been in contact for many centuries and are not recent immigrants to the region. Tsar Ivan the Terrible (16th century) married a princess from the North Caucasus as his second wife. Russia has achieved multicultural harmony with about 98 percent of its ethnic minorities. Considering a few exceptions, this is a good record.

Both Medvedev and Rogozin are right in indicating that compliance with the law by everyone is a requirement for multiculturalism. This is the necessity for symmetry and reciprocity referenced above. The requirement may seem “trite,” but it is a necessary condition nonetheless. The issue “buried inside” is whether all concerned really do want cultural harmony. People who consider the law a primitive power relationship often refuse to obey if they deem themselves to be the stronger party.

It is a mistake to think that separating the North Caucasus “from Russia” will resolve problems in the interaction of civilizations. Persons of North Caucasian origin will not cease to visit and live in Russia after such a putative separation. And the entire world, along with Russia, will regret such a partitioning, because the North Caucasus, outside the legal framework of the Russian Federation, will become a truly lawless region, a war theater, an enclave for violent uncontainable extremism. The world already saw all that in the 1990s.
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