Whither Russian Right-Wing Nationalism?

invitation only · The Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 12.09.2013 09:00 - 10:30
  • invitation only

invitation only

Nationalist and anti-migrant sentiment in Russia appears to be on the rise. The summer months of 2013 produced new evidence for this assumption, ranging from mass anti-Chechen riots in the Samara region and police raids in several cities to the establishment of a detention camp for illegal migrants in Moscow and the centrality of the migration issue in the mayoral elections in Russia’s capital. The question arises whether nationalism in general and xenophobic extremism in particular can become a prominent political force in Russia in the short-to-medium term, whether it is a challenge for the current Russian political regime or, alternatively, whether the authorities can use it to boost their own support. The Finnish Institute of International Affairs is organising a seminar which will try to provide an expert analysis of the issue.

Speaker: Dr Maria Nozhenko, Head of the Centre for European Studies – EU Centre, Docent, Department of Political
Science and Sociology, European University at St. Petersburg

Comment: Dr Anne Le Huérou, Assistant Professor at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre; Visiting Fellow, Aleksanteri Institute

Chair: Dr Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar
Institute Programme Director Dr Arkady Moshes opened the seminar by welcoming the audience to the autumn 2013 series of FIIA NRUS programme seminars. According to Dr Moshes, contrary to popular belief, Russia is a fast moving target that is changing rapidly. A major recent development triggered by the country’s economic growth is massive and increasing immigration. Russia is now hosting over 10 million foreign citizens, only recently a minority of which, 17%, have a legal job in Russia. The rest are probably employed illegally. 10 million is actually seven percent of the total population in Russia and amounts to 12-13 percent of its working-age population. This massive immigration, according to Dr Moshes, is a cause of rising nationalism and xenophobia. Dr Moshes invited the speaker Dr Maria Nozhenko to take the floor with the question of how this general sentiment finally develops into specific sets of policies, a field where expert analysis is needed.
As an introductory note, Dr Maria Nozhenko, Head of the Centre for European Studies-EU Centre and Docent at European University at St. Petersburg stressed that many significant events took place past summer: race riots in Pugachev, called “Russian riot” by the extremists themselves, a fourth case of nationalist riots since 2005; opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s electoral campaign which was in part fuelled by nationalist rhetoric; and efforts against illegal migration, such as targeted police raids in many Russian cities, establishment of the first Russian illegal migrant camp and “Russian clean-ups” where right-wing nationalists gathered to persecute immigrants.
Dr Nozhenko underlined that the central element in this development is the fight against “illegal” migrants, and this applies not only to foreigners but also Russian internal migrants. According to Dr Nozhenko, the root of this problem is failed nation-state development burdened by the history of the Soviet Union. In the prominent nationalist thought, nationality is seen as something one is born with, not linked to human rights, political empowerment or citizenship. The Putin regime also sends contradictory messages by embracing orthodoxy but meanwhile banning “Russia for Russians” ideology. Widespread distrust in the police and a view of immigration as a source of crime enable extraditing immigrants to be seen as a measure to increase personal safety.
Dr Nozhenko then gave a brief history of right-wing nationalist organisations. There has been a relatively large number of nationalist organisations since the 1990s. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, mass migration was mainly that of ethnic Russians. Thus, migration issues were not in ideological focus. Despite a variety of political appearances, at that time, extreme nationalists failed to gain electoral success while the Yeltsin regime used soft pressure against the groups. In the 2000s, however, Russian right-wing nationalists turned the focus against immigration and formed a new organisation, the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). But again, these movements did not receive mass support and some of them were even banned, not just because of extremism but also due to their anti-regime attitudes. However, in the summer of 2013, a new window of opportunity may have opened for the right-wing nationalist groups.
Dr Nozhenko presented three possible future scenarios. First, if authorities persist in attempting to curb illegal immigration, give legal status to immigrant camps and play the role of the sole defender of public interest, nationalists will probably become marginalised and seen but as competitors trying to increase their support at the Kremlin’s expense. This, however, requires significant investments, policy coordination and government responsibility which the Putin regime may not be able to wield. Second, should the government line against nationalist organisations harden, this could result in nationalists going underground and rallying against the regime. This rather likely scenario could have short-term advantages while risking long-term stability if anti-immigrant sentiments continue to gain support in Russia. Third, if nationalists become incorporated in the political system, costs for the government could be minimised but a fragmentation of the party political spectrum would be probable.
As a conclusion, Dr Nozhenko pointed out that summer 2013 has been a significant turning point in the nationalist debate and that activities by right-wing nationalists are on the rise. Right-wing nationalist organisations are currently marginalised and membership is low; however, their ideas enjoy wide support in Russian society. So far, the setting of the activities of the nationalist groups has been the streets, due to insufficient electoral success. The probability of the scenarios is dependent on the decisions taken by the government, related not only to its attitude towards the right-wing nationalist groups but also the immigration question itself.
Speaking as a commentator, Dr Anne Le Huérou, Assistant Professor at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre and Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute, wanted to stress the importance of a failed nationalism, disconnected from an inclusive citizenship. The failed national narrative can actually be seen as both a cause and a consequence of the anti-immigrant sentiments because there is a lack of capacity to see Russia as a “multinational nation”.
Dr Le Huérou also underlined that nationalism doesn’t always work in intuitive ways: the current rise of nationalism took place in a time of economic upswing in the Russia of the 2000s. On the contrary, nationalism was relatively unpopular after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the biggest crisis in modern Russia. This said, liberal work-based immigration policy was actually embraced by some due to lack of available workforce in the 2000s: there was a fight between economic ministries and the groups who didn’t want to welcome new immigrants. Today, many liberal economists consider immigration undesirable from the perspective of national economy, a step backwards according to Dr Le Huérou.
Dr Le Huérou asserted that the visa regime issues in Central Asia are connected with those in relation to the EU: some in Russia see that closing the borders to Central Asia might open them for Europe. Basic issues such as geographical proximity cannot be forgotten when trying to understand migration in Russia, and it is not only a question of migration from far away but also from post-Soviet countries that lay close. There is a global distrust in authorities in Russia which is seen to be connected with migration policy. The question is who will take the lead in the public discussion: what is certain is that the migration question has become very prominent, overshadowing other policy issues. This was seen as a victory for the right-wing nationalist groups by Dr Le Huérou.
Dr Nozhenko replied to Dr Le Huérou’s comments by noting that there was a cultural expectation that work-based immigrants coming from post-Soviet countries would immediately join the common culture built under the 20th century Soviet regime. However, modern immigrants don’t share the experience of growing up in a Soviet country and, as a consequence, these groups often preserve their own national identity, ethnicity and culture while living in their own separate groups. The failure to assimilate the migrants has been seen as a failure by the Russian government.
Speaker and commentator having both finished their speeches, there were questions and comments from the audience. A member of the audience pointed out that there is a long history of “russocentric” ethnicity policy, so it was not completely unexpected by ethnic minorities in the more recent times. Another noted that certain former anti-immigrant activists, such a Rogozin and Glazyev, now work as advisors to ministers and even President Putin, to which Dr Nozhenko replied that e.g. Glazyev has been seen by Putin more as conservative economist rather than an anti-immigrant activist. It was stated that immigrants are necessary for many Russian cities in vital clean-up work, but Dr Moshes replied that there is a widespread distrust in allegedly corrupt authorities, which are seen as fuelling illegal immigration and hiring people to unnecessary jobs so to boost their own status. One member of the audience wondered why the government of Russia has become so reactive whereas in the US, the immigration discussion is seen in more pragmatic terms; another questioned whether the real problem was the failure of foreign policy in Caucasia, not migration policy.
As concluding remarks, chair of the panel Dr Moshes pointed out that Dr Nozhenko’s scenarios prompt an important conclusion, namely, that in the relationship between the state and nationalism in today’s Russia it is the state which is an independent variable, whose actions define and determine the evolution of nationalism. It is also apparent that the right-wing nationalist organisations are far too weak to pose a real threat to Putin. This implies that messages sometimes coming from certain circles in Russia, that any alternative to Putin’s regime is much “worse” for the West and the stability in Europe, which European political elites seem to largely accept, cannot be proven.