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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - November 19, 2013

by David Priestland

Angry demonstrations against immigrants from Central Asia are becoming a regular event in Russia, and last month’s riots in the Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo were particularly serious.

It is tempting to assume these disturbances are of little political significance; after all, President Vladimir Putin has long benefited from Russian nationalism. Yet this rise in xenophobia poses a real threat not only to the migrants but also to the Putin regime and its ability to realise its main ambition: restoration of Russia’s great-power status.

The demonstrations must be understood in the context of globalisation and the movement of workers from poorer to richer countries. While Russia’s population has been stagnating, its energy-fuelled economy has been sucking in labour from central Asian neighbours plagued by high unemployment.

Mr Putin responded to business pressure by relaxing labour migration rules in 2006, and immigration has risen substantially from a low level during the Soviet era: it is estimated that today almost 14 per cent of the combined population of the ex-Soviet central Asian republics now live in Russia. And although the president has publicly expressed sympathy with anti-immigration demonstrators, even introducing limited restrictions, he has refused to end the current visa-free regime, unwilling to upset employers and risk wage inflation.

Yet the president’s policy is not driven by economics alone. Immigration, with free trade, is a central part of his efforts to maintain former Soviet states’ dependence on Russia and strengthen its informal “empire”. Central Asian economies are increasingly reliant on remittances – in 2011 they amounted to 48 per cent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product. Curtailing immigration could therefore damage these economies and undermine Russia’s influence in a region where China, the US and India are keen competitors. It would also inevitably threaten Mr Putin’s plans to create a “Eurasian Economic Union” to emulate and compete with the EU.

Mr Putin’s inconsistent approach to immigration can thus be explained by his efforts to balance three very different political projects: economic liberalisation, quasi-imperialism and a growing ethnic nationalism. He himself is most committed to strengthening the informal “empire” – but it is ethnic nationalism that has the greatest popular appeal. Many ordinary citizens respond to worsening economic conditions by blaming immigrants, and an immigration-friendly state, in addition to Russia’s own Muslim population. They also believe that corrupt police and state officials favour the interests of foreigners over their own.

The tension between imperial and ethnic nationalism has deep historical roots. Both tsars and Soviet commissars encouraged their citizens to identify with a centralised multi-ethnic state, but their vision was frequently challenged by ethnic nationalists, who insisted that countless ordinary Russians were being sacrificed on the altar of empire. It is often forgotten that this argument, rather than support for liberalism or capitalism, underpinned Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of Soviet communism in the 1970s.

The distinction between the two forms of nationalism is even inscribed in the language itself. There are two words for “Russian”: Russky, meaning ethnically Russian, which is associated with a populist nationalism; and Rossysky, which denotes the multi-ethnic Russian nation and is associated with statist and imperialist politics.

The contest between the two types of nationalism has only been intensified by the possibility that Ukraine will this month sign trade and “association” agreements with the EU. But Mr Putin is deeply committed to a Rossysky vision, and divisions over national identity will intensify as Russky nationalism continues to pose a real threat to the Kremlin. Particularly worrying for the president is Alexei Navalny, the charismatic opposition politician who has combined attacks on corruption and calls for market reforms with demands for immigration restrictions. For the first time, Mr Putin faces a broad opposition that can recruit support beyond the liberal educated classes of the major cities.

To defuse this populist Russky nationalism, leaders need to embark on a radical programme of democratisation. To revive growth, the Russian economy must be freed from the grip of corrupt vested interests. The authoritarian state needs profound reform if it is not to appear to ordinary citizens as a selfish Rossysky elite.

Mr Putin is highly unlikely to do either, and will instead try to exploit both nationalisms simultaneously. But he will find the task increasingly difficult, and the stakes are high.

For, as he should remember, it was ethnic nationalism in the Soviet republics that ultimately sealed the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev, one of his predecessors, and of the state Mr Putin still mourns – the USSR.

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