Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991,  the Russian Federation was left with much of its territory but far fewer of its ethnic minorities.  Within Russia, most minority regions became republics along the lines of those lost.  At the time, the country’s population was predominantly Russian (then about 85% Russian to 15% minorities.  Now it is closer to 80% to 20%).  But the country’s greater homogeneity did not end Russia’s ethnic troubles.  The Russian government thereafter fought two wars with the independently driven Chechens living in the North Caucasus in order to retain this restive region under Russian control.

Although the Russian military has prevailed for the time being – there have been recent reports that to do so the Kremlin bought off Kadyrov, the Chechen chieftain or warlord of their choice who has been subsequently ruling the Chechen Republic.  Nevertheless the Kremlin’s decision to let Chechen fighters leave Russia to join ISIS (becoming among its most battle-hardened and fearless troops) may well result in another shooting war once these Islamized and angry fighters return home from the Middle East.

As was the case with the former Soviet Republics, many of Russia’s minority republics are located on the country’s periphery – but not all.  Federica Prino’s book, National Minorities in Putin’s Russia:  Diversity and Assimilation soon to be published by Rutledge, is a study of the relationships between the Kremlin and three of those republics since Putin began his second term as President.

Print chose to focus on two republics located in Russia’s interior and one with a lengthy border with Finland in good part because the data for them was more accessible than it would have been for the far more troublesome and dangerous North Caucasus.  She ably describes the push-pull phenomena that exist between the center and the three republics, the imprecise relationships that exist, the ways in which the center has been able to co-opt local leaders as well as the importance and continuing influence of the historical legacy remaining from the Soviet Union’s handling of its far more diverse, far larger and ultimately far more troubled and troublesome periphery.

Her primary conclusion should not be surprising – namely that as Vladimir Putin has centralized power in Moscow, the minority republics have been negatively affected – forced to cede autonomy to the traditionally Russian dominated powerful Kremlin at the country’s epicenter whose leaders are intent upon restoring as much of the former empire as possible.  Center-periphery relations have long created tensions between the republics and Moscow.   The Soviet Union was largely torn apart by the tensions that erupted between the central leadership and nationalist movements in the European and Caucasian republics intent upon reestablishing or establishing their own independent governments.

Tatarstan, Moldovia and Karelia

The three republics Prino focused on in her study were Tatarstan, Moldavia and Karelia.  Tatarstan, the largest of Russia’s minority republics, is Muslim majority whereas smaller Moldavia and geographically distinct Karelia are, or were, traditionally Finno-Ugric majority regions.  Tatarstan and Moldavia are located in Russia’s interior whereas Karelia is adjacent to Finland.  This crucial difference between the two interior republics and Karelia – which met all but a single criterion for independence in 1991 – should have been explored with far greater attention by Prino.

Print’s research and conclusions assiduously follow the social science academic research model:  careful delineation of boundaries, use of statistical data and a substantial number of written interviews.  That’s all well and good, but it gave her almost no room to explore beyond the study’s self-determined borders thus outside factors did not factor in.  The problem is that the parameters of the study examined the differences with respect to the domestic treatment of minorities and whether certain criteria were met with respect to international norms but gave little consideration to the powerful draw of a more successful contiguous neighbor.

I am far less familiar with Tatarstan or Moldavia than I am with the Karelian Republic which was an integral and important part of Finland until the end of World War II when the Finnish government was forced to surrender the eastern part of Karelia to the Soviets in order to retain Finland’s independence as a country.  Over 225,000 Finns – including Karelians – immediately fled to Finland along with the retreating Finnish troops as a part of the Soviet-Finnish peace accord.

That the remaining Karelian population in the Russian Federation is such a small percentage of the population and still declining should come as no surprise – or that few Karelians in Russia’s Karelian Republic study Karelian –  if one considers the attraction of the republic’s neighbor to the West.  Yet Prino all but fails to consider that the bright lights of Helsinki are most likely the primary reason for the declining population of ethnic Karelians in the Karelian Republic.

Yet this factor is key.

 I would guess that Karelians have been emigrating to Finland since the border opened to them in 1991 just as some of their relatives followed the Finnish troops out at the end of World War II.  Thus, it’s likely that emigration – not assimilation into the far larger Russian population – has been the popular choice for Karelians.  They have long lived on both sides of the Finnish-Russian border (in Finnish Karelia as well as Russian Karelia) and migration would have been easy to do since the Finnish and Karelian languages, cultures and histories are nearly one and the same.

That some Karelians who have remained in Russian Karelia study Finnish as opposed to Karelian – as Prino points out but inadequately explains – is also common sensical.

Although the Finnish economy has stagnated over the past several years, the country’s standard of living remains higher than in the Russian Federation.  The border is open.  Command of Finnish is needed for employment in Finland, the country has a stable democratic tradition and Finnish citizenship opens a path to life and work in the European Union.

Nearby Estonia, a former Soviet Republic – now an EU and NATO member and small Finno-Ugric country on the southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea also bordering the Russian Federation, provides a similar draw for Karelians and Ingrians (Finnish speakers who have lived in and around St. Petersburg for centuries) for those who have decided to depart for the more prosperous and stable West after 1991 made emigration possible.

Since National Minorities in Putin’s Russia is based on Prino’s doctoral dissertation perhaps she might consider expanding her research to explore the question of emigration versus assimilation – as opposed to diversity and assimilation – for members of ethnic minorities living in the former Soviet Union.  Data for the Finno-Ugrics should be especially easy to obtain from Finnish, Estonian and Swedish national statistical services which is where many of the Karelians and Ingrians from Russia now live.