Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Russia's National Survival is at Stake

Part three of the Los Angeles Times' series on "The Vanishing Russians" looks at the rapid growth of Russia's minority populations and how this multicultural challenge combines with the country's dire health crisis to threaten the continued viability of the Russian state:

Russia's post-Soviet population implosion is mainly the result of an alarming increase in deaths and a decline in the birthrate among ethnic Russians, who still make up about 80% of the country.

But as alcohol, cigarettes, pollution, stress, suicide and resurgent diseases contribute to Russian deaths, minority populations are growing rapidly. Many of these smaller groups, particularly Chechens and other Muslims in the Caucasus region, have the country's highest birthrates.

Long accustomed to unquestioned dominance, ethnic Russians are being forced to confront a multiethnic future and significant problems controlling sensitive border regions. Only 12 years ago, they made up more than 60% of Grozny's population; now they account for barely 4%.

And as their population and power diminish in the Caucasus, ethnic Russians are also deserting the most remote stretches of the far east, to be replaced in urban areas near the frontier by hundreds of thousands of immigrants from China.

U.S. experts worry that a politically weak and physically unhealthy Russia could destabilize Europe, making it harder to fight terrorism and possibly opening the gates to a regional pandemic.

Even now, said Duke University political scientist Jerry Hough, the toll from the country's demographic crash is more serious than Stalin's purges or the Darfur crisis in the African nation of Sudan. But there is little that U.S. and European policymakers can do except watch the crisis unfold."

What, exactly, would [people] have the United States — or for that matter, human rights groups — actually do about Russian life expectancy?" said Thomas Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. "Send troops to Russia to slap cigarettes and vodka bottles out of the hands of young men?"
For my previous posts on the series, click
here and here. I have noted in these earlier entries how dramatic Russia's fall from great power status has been and the essential tragedy of Russia's current health crisis. My analysis also foreshadowed some of the points raised in today's article, particularly the suggestion that political weakness and chronic medical problems pose larger threats to international order.

Today's installment tackles the potential breakup of the Russian state directly. Post-Soviet Russia's nationalities problem represents a case study of a segmented society trying to resolve the crisis of community emerging from dramatic differences in socioeconomic class, language, ethnicity, religion, and geographic region.

The article suggests that Russia's historic Slavic identity -- based on language and Orthodox Christianity -- faces destruction as the multicultrual forces grow in strength:

President Vladimir V. Putin, realizing that the country's survival is at stake, has exhorted the public to embrace a multicultural society. He has stepped up prosecutions for hate crimes. Recently, he launched a bid for Russia to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the premier political league of Muslim nations."

Russia must be for Russians, Tatars, Mordovians, Ossetians, Jews, Chechens, for all our peoples and for the entire Russian nation," Vladislav Y. Surkov, the Kremlin's top political aide, told students in February.
Russia needs to develop a model of incorporation for its diverse population subcultures. Other societies facing crises of segmentation -- for example, Belgium and Canada -- have adapted by making changes to the political system granting greater subcultural autonomy to minority groups, often at the expense of the larger national culture. But because both the Belgian and Canadian cases represent advanced industrialized democracies, it's difficult to generalize to the Russian situation.

Russia's predictment is more akin to the democratization processes of Third World nations, for example, India or Nigeria (two nation-states facing destabilizing ethnolinguistic and religious conflicts).

The comparative politics literature on cases such as these suggests that Russian success depends on a number of factors: consolidation of strong state institutions, especially the rule of law and the electoral process; elite leadership stressing tolerance and accomodation (along the lines of the Putin quote cited above); economic prosperity that contributes to the expansion of a broad middle class; and support for democratic processes among society's disadvantaged.

I wouldn't be surprised, though, if the world witnesses a collapse of the Russian state in the decades ahead. The Soviet Union couldn't survive it fissiparous tendencies, a point dramatically demonstrated with the disintegration of Soviet Communism in 1991. Russia could face a similar fate -- or perhaps Russia could survive in some rump version of its current configuration, with a smaller version of the state existing west of the Urals and centered on Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Much will depend on Russia's next president, who should evince less authoritarian tendenicies than Putin, suppress the potential revival of great Russian nationalism, reach out to the various Russian minority nations, and build a record of political and economic performance that contributes to regime stability and consolidation.

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