Paul Goble reports:
The “mass exodus” of the ethnic Russian population from the North Caucasus, a flow that began in the late Soviet period, expanded after the demise of the USSR, and shows no sign of diminishing in the future “threatens the very existence of the Russian Federation,” according to a Russian specialist at the Southern Federal University in Rostov.
Edvard Popov, who teaches there, says that conditions in the North Caucasus, including poverty, unemployment, xenophobia and violence help to explain two migration flows: the outflow of ethnic Russians which reverses the earlier “Russian colonization” of the region and the outflow of non-Russians which can be called “the internal colonization of Russia” by them. The second has created many problems in Russia’s cities, he acknowledges, but “the mass departure of the Russian population [from the republics of the North Caucasus] threatens the very existence of the Russian Federation” because “the Russian people is the state-forming people” of the country”.
Popov’s conclusion is cited by Vladimir Karpets in an article posted online today that traces the departure of the ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus region over the last 40 years. “Since the end of the 1970s,” he writes, “the number of ethnic Russians has declined in almost all regions of the North Caucasus and the Trans-Caucasus.” But that trend became a flood after the end of the Soviet Union. “The most catastrophic” situation was the departure of ethnic Russians from Chechnya and Ingushetia” in the course of the two Chechen wars. As a result of those flows, these two republics were “converted into ethnically homogeneous regions.”
The same thing was happening elsewhere and “without any war,” Karpets notes. And since 1989, all the regions and republics, except Adygeya (which is entirely surrounded by predominantly Slavic Krasnodar kray), have seen the absolute number and percentage share of ethnic Russians decline, in many cases precipitously. And that pattern toward ethnically homogeneous non-Russian republics was exacerbated by a trend few in Moscow have paid attention to: “More than half of all immigrants of titular ethnic groups arriving in Russia from foreign countries chose as the new place of residence their own national republics.”
Not only does the departure of ethnic Russians eliminate one of the levers Moscow has typically used and reduced pressure for linguistic and cultural integration, but polls show that as ethnic Russians have become less numerous, those remaining are ever more inclined to want to leave, assuming they can find a place to go. According to recent polls, Karpets continues, “about a third” of the remaining Russians in the region would leave they could see their way clear to do so. That is because an increasing fraction of them “speak openly about restrictions of their rights” and because they face some of the same economic difficulties the indigenous population does.
At the same time, he notes, “the population of the Caucasus regions of Russia after the collapse of the USSR have been subject to the same processes of depopulation, economic and demographic decline that the country as a whole has experienced,” with birthrates falling, mortality rates rising, and natural increase disappearing even in predominantly Muslim areas. The situation in Chechnya shows the direction things are moving. While there are thousands of Chechens living in Russian cities, less than one percent of Chechnya’s population is now made up of ethnic Russians, and they have only three of the 58 deputies in the republic parliament and only one of the 30 ministerial and committee head positions.
Moreover, as Russians become fewer in number and the titular nationality becomes more predominant, the self-conception of the latter changes, with Russians often viewed as second class citizens or worse. One piece of evidence for that is 99 percent of Chechnya’s Muslims elected to study Islam in schools, while only 20 percent of Russians chose to study Orthodoxy. And while a generation ago, Moscow officials talked about the assimilation of non-Russians, now in some North Caucasus republics, non-Russians are talking about the assimilation of Russians. In Daghestan, for instance, Russians are already counted as “Daghestanis” because they have been “converted” by the common culture of that republic.
Much of this is the result of mistaken Russian policies, Karpets argues, which often subsidize the non-Russian areas at the expense of the Russian even as the non-Russian areas treat Russians as “second class” citizens, who are not supported by Moscow or by the titular nationality of the republics in the North Caucasus. Popov speaks about “the contradictions between the principles of a federal Russian state and the situation of the Russian people deprived of its own legal subjectness, a lack which has been exacerbated by the inadequate budgetary policy of the federal center and the growing threat of uncontrolled internal and external migration.”
“The way out,” he suggests, “is to begin with the restoration of historical justice, to introduce into the constitution a provision about the state-forming role of the Russian people and other indigenous peoples of Russia.” But that could further infuriate and embolden the non-Russians and possibly make the current situation even worse. According to Karpets, if things do not change, there is a real chance that Russia will lose the North Caucasus, a loss that he says “will only be the beginning. After that the disintegration of the entire country will follow.” And he warns that “if the Kremlin does not immediately face up to this situation, then it will be possible to conclude that it has lost everything.”