An Unexpected Obstacle: the Eurasian Project and the Russian Nationalism

Michael ZOLYAN



 The idea of creation of the Eurasian Union has already been discussed quite a lot here, in Armenia, and in the other republics of the former USSR as well. The proposal is mainly considered from the view of the benefits and advantages for the post-Soviet republics: whether the power elites and societies of these countries have the desire to join such a union or not and how much they are ready to that.  However, the following quite important issue has remained beyond the discussion: the degree of just Russia’s readiness to get integrated with the post-Soviet republics. From the first sight this question may seem absurd, taking into account the fact that it is just the Russian political elites who have recently declared the idea of creation of such a union. But one thing is the establishment, and the other thing is the Russian society. Are the vast masses of the Russian society ready for integration with the former Soviet republics? Taking into consideration the outburst of nationalist moods in the recent years, the answer to the question seems quite obscure.


It is absolutely clear that the future of any “Eurasian” structure depends on Russia’s behavior. In this sense, any Eurasian structure will be principally different from the European Union. When the EU was created, there were several “heavyweights,” i.e. France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain, the power balance of which allowed securing more or less equal conditions.  Obviously, in case if any of them had displayed ambitions too much and tried to impose its will on the other members of the union, the other “heavyweights,” would not have let such a member do it. And vice versa, in any of the “heavyweights” had lost the interest to integration, the deficit of initiative would have been filled in by the other “heavyweights.”


On the territory of the former Soviet Union there is only one “heavyweight” – Russia.  If Russia in the process of integration would display insufficient interest or would be too much ambitious, then it will have fatal consequences for the “Eurasian” integration. So not to let the idea of “Eurasianhood” fail, Russia will have to take the responsibility for the future of this structure upon itself. However, such a responsibility would not be enough. Russia should also learn to retrain its own ambition in the other cases as well, not to let the other participants take the process as a threat to their independence and sovereignty. And the question is whether Russia is able to provide such a fragile balance or not.


However, the whole process can be spoiled by nationalism. The Russian nationalism has become a serious factor in the present day Russia. According to periodical statements by Russian nationalists, none of the ideologies in the contemporary Russia is able to compete with the nationalism in the sense of mobilization of the human resource. The protest actions of the nationalists in December 2010 in the center of Moscow got a much wide-spread resonance than the actions, organized by liberals, or the voluntary-compulsory events, held by pro-governmental political forces, the organizers of which usually use administrative leverages to gather participants for their rallies.


Certainly, we can call marginal those several thousand nationalists, who gathered in the center of the capital city, but the point is that nationalist ideas have not been considered as radical or marginal in Russia for quite a long time. You can find such ideas, clichés and conspiracy theories in the present day mass media, Internet, in the statements of political figures, intellectuals and even officials. Political forces and the Russian authorities very often use the nationalist rhetoric, making it habitual for the public.


One of the causes of the Russian, particularly, radical nationalism is the ideological vacuum that has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Communist ideology was discredited in the last decades of the existence of the USSR, meanwhile the liberal-democratic ideology was discredited during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. In such a situation nationalists have found themselves almost without any rivals or competitors.   And now the ideology of any party can be considered as more or less nationalist. The ruling party – Edinaya Rossiya can be characterized as a right-wing-moderate conservative-nationalist party, although the leaders of the party are trying to avoid  calling themselves “nationalists.”  The forces, considered as leftist, in particular, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, have quite successfully combined the conservative-nationalist rhetoric with the demands for the social justice since 1990s. Another influential force, the Liberal-Democratic Party of Vladimir Jirinovsky, is openly playing on the “nationalist pitch.” Meanwhile, the so called “right-wing” or “democratic” forces, which still have a negative attitude toward the nationalism, are too weak, getting the votes of only a scanty part of the population.


Moreover, the liberal-democratic forces are apparently starting to understand that they will be able to have a wide public support only if they are open for nationalist ideas. For example, blogger Alexey Navalny, famous for his struggle against corruption, says that it is necessary to work with people with nationalist moods to let Russia have a moderate, European-style “civil” nationalism. Navalny’s approaches, which were condemned by the leaders of the “old-style opposition,” are now shared enough among the liberal-democratic circles. However, it is not clear  so far, how successful will be the attempt to make the nationalism serving the democratic reforms, but the fact  that liberal forces are trying “to play on the nationalist pitch” says much about the situation with ideology in Russia.


The Russian nationalist field is known with diversity of concepts, but it is possible to single out two main directions. It is the great-power chauvinism and ethno-Russian nationalism. The supporters of the first direction are focused on the global (well, let say, regional) mission of Russia, aiming at restoration of the Russian empire. According to them, Russia’s main enemies are global “power centers” – the West, the United States, the “Jewish-freemasonic conspiracy,” etc. The goal of the “second version” of the Russian nationalism is to turn Russia into a “purely Russian”   state; so the main enemies for them are representatives of other nations and ethnic groups:  Caucasians, Asians, Africans, migrants as a whole. Unlike the great-power chauvinists, the ethnic nationalists are trying to keep away from the other post-Soviet countries and maximally limit the participation of non-Russians in the life of the country. It is the supporters of this sort of nationalism who keep demanding to restrict the entry of non-Russians into Moscow and other cities. The initiative “Stop feeding Caucasus!”  calling to limit the state subsidies for the North Caucasian republics, is just a product of that direction. Even more, some nationalist circles are more frequently voicing the demands to separate the Northern Caucasus from Russia.


Ideologically, these two directions of nationalism are absolutely different concepts with different historical and ideological roots. One is a product of the conservative-nationalist ideology, which dominated for some time in the Russian empire; the roots of the other one are more “modern,” being displayed in the racist and ethno-nationalist theories, imported from the Western Europe. Although such theories have already been rejected by the Western European society, they are still considered quite timely by many in Russia. However, we should point out that it is not so easy to   distinguish these two directions from each other, because they often act in liaison.


In case if any of these two nationalist directions dominated in Russia, they would be hardly combined with the Eurasian project. If the imperial chauvinism won, it might lead to domination of great-power expansionist elements in the foreign policy of Russia, which most probably will cause a total resistance of the other participants of the “Eurasian project.” Meanwhile, in case of the domination of the racist-type nationalism, Russia itself may lose the interest to the “Eurasian project.”  In Russia they say quite a lot about distancing from the post-Soviet republics, the need of a visa regime, deportation of the migrants, ethnic quotas for some specialties, etc.  So the Russian authorities should take into account such moods. Naturally, the mentioned moods will not contribute to the regional integration, as far as the EU experience shows, the integration first of all supposes transparency of the borders and free labor migration.


All these judgments are not abstract at all. There a lot of signs that the integration project of the Russian political elite may face the desire of the Russian society to keep far from the former Soviet republics. In the middle of November, the Russian, Belarus and Kazakhstan leaders signed some documents in Moscow, which should become a platform for formation of the Eurasian Union. However, just the same days as a response to the sentence passed in Tajikistan upon the Russian pilot, “illegal” Tajik migrants were deported from Russia, and Russia’s Chief Sanitary Doctor Gennady Onischenko said that it is necessary to limit the entry of Tajikistani citizens to Russia, because AIDS and tuberculosis have been widespread in Tajikistan. The appeals to deport Tajikistani citizens have got a wide support in various circles of the Russian society.


It is true that all this has been caused by the sentence passed upon the Russian pilot, but it was just another pretext for actualization of the demands to restraint the migration from the post-Soviet republics to Russia. Thus, we see that on the one hand, the Russian authorities would like a regional integration, but on the other hand, the Russian society is categorically against the free labor migration, which is one of the most important elements of integration processes. Actually, integration has not yet gone any farther beyond declarations and signing documents, the Russian society supports the idea, but as soon as the real integration starts, the attitude of the Russian society toward the Eurasian project may drastically change. Today it is difficult to say how such a contradiction can be solved, but apparently it surely has a serious impact on the fate of the Eurasian integration project.


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