SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )


Sergei Arutiunov
(Institute of Ethnography, RAS)

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

The notion of ethnos and ethnicity became an object of serious attention for scholars early in this century. Needless to say, ethnography as a term, a notion, and as the discipline for the study of peoples has already existed for at least two hundred years, but initially its main focus was ethnic culture, not ethnic identity. Only with the rise of nationalism in the late 19-th and especially in this century has it become evident that even peoples, who are closely related in origin, cultural traits and basic values, may nevertheless have different ethnic identities, and fiercely compete with each other for resources, for territory, for political domination. Wars, previously staged under banners of dynasties and religions, now are waged most often under ethnic banners. Striking examples of this can be seen in many places of the world, in Africa, in Southern Europe, and on the territory of the former Soviet Union, particularly in the Caucasus.

The phenomenon of ethnicity has been studied by many scholars; among the first was S. M. Shirokogorov, followed in Russia by Yu. V. Bromley, E. S. Markarian, L. N. Gumilev, and in the West the works of F. Barth and N. Fried deserve special attention. Despite many differences in approaches, ethnos is generally regarded as a certain form of adaptation by human beings to conditions of their existence. This is somewhat analogous to a species as a means of adaptation in nature. Can the present situation of ethnic conflicts be equated to some renovated version of social Darwinism, where ethnos are doomed to struggle for their survival and extended reproduction, or are there no fatal obstacles to their peaceful coexistence? To answer this question, first of all the basic types of ethnic organisms must be examined. In Russian (Soviet) anthropology for a long time there was practically an unchallenged statement that these types are tribes, nationalities (narodnosti in the Russian terminology) and nations. In recent years, this view, together with the rest of the legacy of the so-called Marxist historic approach, was subject to severe criticism (e.g. by M. V. Kriukov), but I still think that this typology is a reflection of an objective reality. This reality consists in the most important role, played in the formation and maintenance of ethnicity, by flows of information, by communication ties, and the intensivity of these ties differs at different stages of historical development. When the transmission of information is limited almost exclusively to oral speech, to face-to-face communication, it is typical for tribes. The use of written text, of a script determines the shift to a level of nationality (narodnost'), and the use of mass media, press, all-national school system with the norms of national standard language makes a nation.

Once having emerged, the ethnic identity tends to maintain and reproduce itself, as a means for a group competition for niches and their resources, and extended self-reproduction becomes the ultimate motivation of activity of such groups.

All these types of ethnicity can be observed in modern Russia, especially in such areas of concentration of national minorities, as Siberia and the Caucasus.

In the current transitional state of the social order in Russia, the extremely unstable political and economic situation is the cause of increased activity of such national/ethnic groups in their search for a more clearly defined identity, confirmation of their aboriginal status and in their mutual competition for various kinds of local natural and economic resources. This competition sometimes attains the level of violent and even blood-shedding conflicts. This increased activity, as well as its basic forms and objectives, differ, depending on the type to which the given ethnic entity belongs. This typology and its manifestations are reflected in the political demands and aspirations of corresponding ethnic groups.

What should we mention first of all as the basic objectives and aims of a nation? Undoubtedly, it is the formation of an independent nation-state, the inevitable requirement of any nation as soon as it has been formed and consolidated. Then follow attempts to strengthen the basis of such state, i.e. to enlarge the sources of its national existence, (to use an analogy to natural processes, its ecological niche), either by territorial expansion, or by exploration of new resources, or at the expense of competing groups (their assimilation, subordination or expulsion), or by some other means. All such forms of national behavior can be observed, for example, in the current policy of the nation- states of Transcaucasia. We can clearly see such competitive objectives in the Armenian- Azeri conflict around Karabagh, in Georgia's military intervention in Abkhazia, in Azerbaidjan's claims to the oil resources of the Caspian shelf, in squeezing out or restriction of ethnic and cultural minorities practically in all these nations and in a number of other cases.

The Northern Caucasus is constitutionally a part of the Russian Federation and technically we do not find here any independent nation-states, although the Chechenian Republic of Ichkeria is still insisting on its independent status. But several ethnic entities in the Northern Caucasus among the so-called titulary nationalities, i.e. nationalities who give their name to a federated republic which is practically a substitute of a nation state for such ethnic groups, are already approaching the level of their social development and political behavior, which are characteristic for true nations. These peoples are already quite homogeneous and consolidated, they are sufficiently numerous and economically developed to possess all such features.

The Chechenian Republic is the only one among them who is trying to get recognition of national independence on the international stage, by political statements, simultaneously pursuing other aims, such as squeezing out, under various pretexts and by various forms of pressure, all heterogeneous competing minorities- first of all, of course, Russians, but also Jews, Armenians, and even closely ethnically related Ingushes. At the same time Chechenia makes attempts at enlarging its territory, by demanding to confirm its "rights" to the territories of Northern districts which prior to 1957 never had been populated by Chechenians and were given to the then dual Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia by a voluntaristic action of N. Khrushchev.

Chechenia is also looking for additional resources, one of which may become the exploitation of the pipeline on its territory, potentially vitally important for the transportation of oil from the Caspian shelf to Europe.

Other nations, comparable in size and level of social and economic development to Chechens, such as Ingushes, Ossetins, Kabardins, so far do not claim the status of independent nation-states, but in fact the policy of their government and their demands and aspirations stop very short of a complete practical independence.

A formal independence from Russia would probably today not even be accepted by them, even in a hypothetical case that it would be proposed and granted. The reason is that membership in the Russian Federation temporarily suits their national requirements. However, other forms of self-assertion and a tendency towards an extended self-reproduction are manifested and can be observed in their current policy. There are a number of proposed and pursued steps which reflect this tendency.

Among the steps that republics can undertake one can mention the signing of a bilateral agreement between one of the republics and the federal center. Such agreements have so far been concluded between the Federal Government and a number of republics, among them Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Yakutia (Sakha Republic), and in the Caucasus area, Ossetia-Alania (North Ossetia) and Kabardin- Balkaria. An agreement of such a type is not a standard document and its details are thoroughly negotiated in each case, but basically it always contains chapters giving to the republic many more rights than are explicitly specified by the Federal Treaty and the Russian Constitution. It must be emphasized that normally (perhaps with the exception of the Treaty with Tatarstan) such a document does not contradict the Constitution but interprets it in a broadened sense.

Another alternative for a republic which tries to ameliorate its position and to gain some privileges and benefits is to negotiate with the Federal Center for a declaration of the republic as a free economic zone. The idea is to attract investments to a republic, providing tax-exemption privileges for the companies registered in it. Though in most cases the business companies continue to reside and operate not in the Republic (in this case we speak about the Republic of Ingushetia) but in some other place, most often in Moscow, and only technically are registered in the republic, still they give to the republic some kind of additional income, and this can be clearly seen in Ingushetia. A similar status is planned for Chechenia, probably with the single aim to persuade it to join the Federation. So far Chechens have invariably been insisting on their independent status but in the future some amendment to their adamant position is quite possible. Finally, a similar status of a free economic zone is claimed repeatedly by Daghestan, but in this case with no success and it is improbable that Daghestan will ever achieve this aim. There are several reasons that prevent Daghestan from becoming a free economic zone, among them its very large size, both in territory and population, its situation on the Azerbaidjan boarder, but perhaps the main reason, perhaps not even explicitly formulated by any authority, is just the fact that Daghestan is not a nation, but a conglomerate of more than thirty nationalities and tribes, and as such, is not able to utilize the benefits of a free economic zone for any purpose of normal national development.

These political measures indicate rather clearly, that all the ethnic groups in question can be regarded as practically almost accomplished nations. They strive to create better conditions for their national existence, which would include the highest degree of autonomy and freedom of administration of their financial and natural resources, stopping short of complete independence.

Complete independence, such as that demanded by Chechenia, with formation of an independent nation-state, as it has been mentioned earlier, is in fact not really desirable for all these nations.

To tell the truth, I would not insist that an exception should be made even for Chechenia, since all of these republics, like many nominally completely independent nations of the third world, are not yet fully self-supporting, and it would be difficult for them to exist without economic aid from outside, that is, from the Federal Center.

The question arises, whether there is not a contradiction between the ripeness of an ethnic group as a nation and its alleged inability to support itself economically. I would agree that many so-called nations in Africa are not yet nations in the anthropological sense, but one hardly can deny that Israel, for example, is an absolutely accomplished nation. However, it is also more or less clear, that under given circumstances Israel hardly will continue to exist safely even economically, let alone militarily, if it is cut off from foreign aid. The current situation of nearly global mutual dependence in the modern world probably gives us a right to speak of nations as nations, even when they are not completely self-supporting economically, provided that they nevertheless find the means to support and develop their basic national informational institutions - their national language, their system of national education, their mass-media and other information services, responsible for the maintenance of a nation's informational integrity.

However, not too many ethnic groups, who possess their 'sovereign' statehood in Russia, can be regarded as accomplished nations. Rather they must be viewed as the highest form of the preceding stage of development, i.e. as highly developed 'nationalities', which came very near to a transformation into real nations, are feeling an inherent collective desire to pass to this higher stage, but have not yet done it, and mainly because they lack material means to do so, i.e. material means to develop full scale national educational and communicational systems. Examples of this situation can be seen in a number of cases, among which the cases of Abkhazia and Balkaria are among the most representative. They are also very different from each other, because in Abkhazia a premature attempt at secession and Georgia's irresponsible attempt to quell it by force resulted in horrible devastation, while in Balkaria so far a more reasonable approach prevailed among all conflicting partners.