Tuesday, 31 December 2013

RUSSIA: THE PARADOX OF THE CORE AND THE FRINGE



The Chechens or possibly their fellow Muslims from other parts of the Caucasus have been at it again: committing "cowardly" acts of suicide terrorism and, in the process, emphasizing the contradictory nature of a Russian state that, despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, still extends far beyond its demographic boundaries, yet somehow tries to pretend that it doesn't.

The recent bombings in Volgograd, shortly before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a venue that is itself perched on the edge of the chaotic map of the Caucasus region, catches Russia at an awkward and ungainly moment as it fumbles between the two stools of being (a) a fully autonomous, semi-imperial state with a subject fringe population and (b) a state with a self-justifying teleology of rising material living standards and increasing integration in a global society dominated by the values of the West.

With a non-Russian population of around 20-25%, Russia is yet another multicultural state, but it is quite unlike its American rival, as significant parts of its non-Russian population is concentrated in homelands that have not always been part of Russia.

Historically this is a recipe for two things: fragmentation or tyranny.

Tyranny, or a strong, authoritarian state that suppresses any urge towards independence among non-Russian populations, is problematic because, since the fall of Communism, Russia has been a state without a clear ideology to justify such strong action. The result of this ideological vacuum is that it has fallen into Western norms of political morality, vindicating its existence by its ability to facilitate the kind of consumerist improvements, "cultural diversity," and individual rights that the West likes to pride itself on.

Attempts to promote Orthodox Christianity as a kind of partial substitute ideology are nice – especially around Xmas-time – but swinging metal balls filled with burning incense in front of dimly-lit poker-faced icons can only get you so far in the modern age.

The one ideology that could perhaps cut it and provide a broad-based alternative system of beliefs for a strong Russian state, namely an unapologetic Russian nationalism, has to be kept in check; contained, as it were, in a big blue bottle at the back of the shelf, from where it is sparingly applied with a pipette. Too much of this would not only interfere with Russia's attempt to plug into the international consumersphere, but would also exacerbate problematic non-Russian nationalisms not only in the Caucasus but also further afield.

In short, Russia under Putin, despite the strongman posturing, has accepted the premises of the West and must therefore play the role of a putative consumerist-and-human-rights-oriented state, while hiding the brutalism necessary to maintain its hold over places like Chechnya behind the fast-shrinking fig leaf of being a state in uneasy transition.

There was a hint of this inner conflict in Putin's big pre-Olympics PR offensive that involved the release of various "enemies of the state," like Pussy Riot and the ex-oligarch Khodorkovsky.

A similar dynamic has recently been in play in the Ukraine, where Russia got into a bit of a muddle trying to secure its backyard against EU penetration. Caught between its need to be both tough guy and cooing dove, it has occasionally been caught dangling the stick under the donkey’s nose while hitting it with the carrot.

The biggest problem for the Russians, however, remains the Caucasus with its fierce mountain peoples made fiercer by Islam. This is Russia's real front line, with Sochi located very close to it. Despite the religious aspect of the conflict, the real problem is essentially one of Russian imperial dominion versus local self-determination.

The real, underlying weakness of the Russian state is revealed by the fact that rather than fighting this battle on these terms, the Kremlin has instead imported its political morality by plugging the struggle into the international grid of "The War on Terrorism" (copyright US govt.) and the defence of human rights. All the same tropes have appeared, from evil jihadists corrupting sweet, innocent moderate Muslims and "medieval" attitudes to women to the need for the Russian people to put up with ever greater state power in the name of "security" (and a successful Winter Olympics). In addition to this, there is also a hearts-and-minds campaign among the subject populations, with various amnesties and economic programs.

Such an approach has the attraction of allowing Russia to combine its Solaris-like simulation of a Western consumerist-and-human-rights-oriented state with its old school brutalism for a little longer. But Russia is now a prisoner of its own human rights narrative, pumped out relentlessly through its organs like Russia Today and the tireless work of Professor Dugin.

How can a state that is afraid of oppressing Pussy Riot and is in favour of the Bolivarian revolution in South America continue to use the stick against the legitimate aspirations for independence among its non-Russian nationalities?

This leads us to the central paradox facing Russia: in a world dominated by international humanitarian values, the multinational state in which the core population oppresses the fringe population is forced either to break up or evolve into the multinational state in which the core population is oppressed for the benefit of the fringe population.

As in America, the unity of the greater Russian state will increasingly be predicated on the bribery of its minorities, combined with the stifling or sublimation into meaningless abstraction of the identitarianism of the core majority group. Although not as advanced as the process in the major Western states, this process already seems to be underway in Russia.

An alternative to this process would be to cut Chechnya and a large part of the Caucasus adrift, and counteract the resulting weakness of the state through a renewal of true Russian nationalism based directly on the Russian people. But this too is problematic because such a Russia would doubtless feel driven to seek union with those populations of Russians outside the actual Russian state, like the Eastern Ukraine, the Crimea, and parts of Kazakhstan, where Russians are in the majority. Another paradox of Russia is that even though it extends far beyond its demographic boundaries, in other places it falls far short of them.

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