RFE/RL: Can A Nationality Become An Ethnic Group?

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Subject: RFE/RL: Can A Nationality Become An Ethnic Group?

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RFE/RL: Can A Nationality Become An Ethnic Group?

RFE/RL Russian Federation Report
Vol. 2, No. 9, 7 March 2001

A Survey of Developments in the Regions Outside Moscow
Prepared by the Staff of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

By Paul Goble
Tatars in the Russian capital of Moscow are attempting to transform
their community from a Soviet-defined 'nationality' to an ethnic group
of the kind familiar in Western democracies, but as the leaders of
that community admit, their success in this effort remains far from
certain. Rasim Akchurin, the president of the regional Tatar national
cultural autonomy, described in an interview published 24 February in
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" both the aspirations of his community and also
the difficulties it faces in making this transition.

Akchurin's organization was created on the basis of a 1996 Russian law
"on national cultural autonomy." That legislation was designed to give
groups either lacking a state-defined territorial entity or living
beyond the borders of the one listed as being theirs the possibility
of creating ethnic institutions such as schools and social service
agencies to support their community.

That law marked a major break with the Soviet past. As set up by
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet system with rare exceptions
gave language and other cultural rights to non-Russian nationalities
only on the territory of the republic or entity bearing its name. That
is, a Tatar living in Tatarstan could attend a Tatar-language school
only in Tatarstan. (The Russians were the exception; Russian-language
institutions were provided for them everywhere.)

Tatars or other groups who lived over widely dispersed areas or who
moved out of their ethnic republics were given little or no cultural
or linguistic support and were in the Soviet understanding expected to
assimilate to the dominant nation, typically Russian, among whom they

For the Tatars, this was a particular problem to the future of their
nation because three-quarters of its members live beyond the borders
of the Republic of Tatarstan in the Middle Volga. Hence, they have
been among the most active in taking advantage of the provisions of
the 1996 act.

They have organized district and regional committees, one of which
Akchurin heads. They have set up schools, special courses, and social
clubs. And they have sought to maintain their national identity in
much the same way that ethnic communities do in democratic societies.

But they face several major obstacles in transforming themselves from
a Soviet-style nationality to a Western-style ethnic group. First, the
Tatars of Moscow have to follow the provisions of the law which
rigidly set registration requirements but to do so without the
financial support of the government. Akchurin said that the city and
regional authorities had provided help but that the federal government
has not.

Second, the 1996 law prohibits the Tatar community from engaging in
politics. Consequently, it cannot seek to pressure the government or
promote candidates for office as other social groups in a civil
society are allowed to do. Instead, ethnic communities like religious
communities are precluded from legal political participation, a
prohibition that may lead to the politicization of these groups in
ways the state cannot control.

And third, the 1996 law and those who implement it continue to use
Soviet-era terminology. Akchurin said last week that he did not like
his community to be called a diaspora or even a national cultural
community. He pointed out that Tatars have been living in Moscow
"since the moment of the founding of the city" and therefore cannot be
properly viewed as a diaspora.

The Tatar leader said that he believes the community should be called
what it calls itself, a community, one not interested in standing
aside from the life of other groups in the Russian capital but also
committed to maintaining its sense of individual and collective

Akchurin suggested that all 'nationalities' in the Russian Federation
should have the same rights as his group seeks, including ethnic
Russians living among non-Russian communities in various parts of that
country. If Akchurin's vision triumphs, then the Russian Federation
will have made an important step forward toward the creation of a
civil society defined by more than just the existence of
non-governmental organizations.

The fact that he is in a position to give this interview is a source
of hope. But the survivals of past Soviet thinking on this subject to
which he refers indicate that he, the Tatars and other groups in that
country face an uphill struggle in transforming themselves from
nationality to ethnic group and their country from a state-defined
organization into a civil society.

Copyright (c) 2001. RFE/RL, Inc. All rights reserved.
"RFE/RL Russian Federation Report" is prepared by Julie A. Corwin
(JAC) on the basis of a variety of sources, including reporting by
"RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. Regular
contributors are Jan Cleave (JC), Liz Fuller (LF), and Paul Goble
(PG). It is distributed every Wednesday.
Direct comments to Julie A. Corwin at corwinj@rferl.org.
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