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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Nationalities and Conflicting Ethnicity in Post-Communist Russia



This paper forms part of the author’s larger study on ethnic conflict and development in Russia. It opens with a discussion of methodological approaches to understanding the phenomenon of ethnicity in the contemporary world, focusing on post-Soviet theory and social practice. The author argues that the Soviet régime deliberately constructed ethno-national identities in order to build a state based on ethnic principles. Its “success” in producing powerful ethnic élites and nationalist
ideology ultimately played an important role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as ethnicity and nationalism became an accessible and easily understandable basis for collective mobilization when central power and ideology collapsed.

Thus the immediate post-Soviet period saw the formation of ethnically-based political entities within the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. However, these new entities are themselves multi-ethnic in character: in order for the new states to survive, and to avoid ethnic unrest and possible renewed fracturing along ethnic lines, they must sooner or later abandon the conception of ethno-national state systems and build new nations based on common citizenship.

The paper argues that this is the dilemma of ethnic self-determination: although the creation of new states may in some cases be essential or inevitable, the search for “natural” or “just” borders, especially along ethnic lines, “is both absurd and extremely dangerous”. The author advocates instead that cultural pluralism form the basis of a political formula for addressing the national question within the current borders of the states of the former Soviet Union, and he argues that the “de-étatisation of ethnicity and the de-ethnicization of the state” is necessary to weaken the importance of exclusive ethnic loyalty in favour of multiple identity.

Finally, the paper offers suggestions for political strategies and mechanisms to address the ethnic tensions and conflicts in the region. Federalism and local self-government will alleviate some problems, while government support for non-territorial cultural autonomy, including for the use of minority languages, will address other concerns. At the same time, the process of democratization in multi-ethnic states requires creativity: a system based simply on the principle of one person, one vote is likely to result in the under-representation of minorities. More complex electoral formulas which encourage inter-ethnic coalitions and co-operation must be sought.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Mar 1994
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD