Friday, December 6, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Domestic Division, Not External Aggression, Threatens Russia Now, Tishkov Says

Paul Goble

                Staunton, December 6 – Academician Valery Tishkov, director of the Moscow Institue of Ethnology and Anthropology, argues that divisions within the elites of Russia rather than any challenges from outside constitute the main threat to the country and, if unchecked, could lead to its “degradation and disintegration.”

            Tishkov, an advisor on ethnic affairs to the Kremlin and a frequent commentator on ethnic issues in the Russian Federation, argues that to do so, Russia needs an effective administration, a self-confident citizenry and a responsible elite which can promote shared values ( and

            “Contemporary scholarship shows,” he continues, “that a society exists when the five percent which form the elite are in agreement.” But unfortunately, in Russia today, there is no such agreement within the elite. And the lack of such accord entails the most negative consequences.

             According to Tishkov, there is “a self-destructive internal trend” in Russia. Despite the fact that conditions of life, persona strategies, inter-ethnic marriages, and inter-religious relations show that Russians are “by an order of magnitude more similar than different ... “’talking heads’ in the media have played up the contrary and made the country “difficult to run.”

            He notes that “very often” during election campaigns, candidates and their supporters say things in order to win support by playing up divisions that after the voting is completed, they find it “impossible to push back.”  Talk about “’the others’” or “’the enemies,’ especially internal ones, can lead to a serious crisis in one of the most favorable times in the life of our country.”

            The academician speculates that this all may be happening because, “as a result of the depth of the changes which we have experienced over the last two decades, we at times conceive even the positive changes as negative ones.” Or it may be that most people, Russians included, simply “don’t want to hear good news.”

            Many like negative reports, he continues, because that “gives them the occasion to complain about life.”
            But there is a real danger when such complaints are not countered by the elites and when they begin to dominate public discourse.  Perhaps, Tishkov says, it would be a good thing to use the Sochi Olympiad as an occasion for a certain “pause” or time out to reflect on what is in fact going on rather than what others are saying.
            Over the last ten to fifteen years, the ethnologist argues, Russia has gone along “a difficult but from the point of view of the standard of living of the population an entirely positive path.” But in the consciousness of many Russians, there is the sense that it is in crisis, that Russia is dying away.  And these views have been advanced rather than opposed by some in the elite
            According to the academician, “social cataclysms shake states most often during periods of deep change in the lives of people, a political split among the elites in the struggle for poer and resources, and also ideological confusion among the intellectuals.” Such factors are “interconnected, although they operate differently.”
            “But the chief” among them, Tishkov insists, “is the lack of a fundamental agreement concerning basic things.  If there is no such agreement among the more active strata of society, then there is no society but only its metaphor, ‘the people,’ in the name of which activists manipulate the social space.”
            From such superficially “’small’ causes,” the scholar concludes, “great cataclysms can arise.”
            Tishkov, who in recent years has drawn fire from many for his promotion of a civic identity for citizens of the Russian Federation in place of the ethnic identifications many and especially Russian nationalists view as primary, is certain to ignite a new wave of controversy with these latest comments.
            He is certain to be criticized by those who think that Russia really is in a crisis not only in psychological and national but increasingly in economic terms.  And  he will be attacked by those who think that his remarks can be used by the Kremlin to justify a new round of repression against the media and the intelligentsia.
            But Tishkov’s argument is important for reasons both his critics and his supporters may be inclined to ignore.  On the one hand, he is certainly correct that the residents of the Russian Federation continue to share many common values, although many would suggest that that communality is diminishing with time.
            And on the other, he is equally correct that when a population lacks agreement on the fundamentals, it is at far greater risk of disintegration than any external enemy could threaten. In Russia today, both the elites and the broader population lack such an agreement and thus face the task of trying to create one, something that no people has ever found easy to do.

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