The Russian government has just asked 12 million of its citizens to forget about their ethnic identity.
Vladimir Medinsky may be the undoing of the current Russian regime.
As Minister of Culture, Medinsky is not in any formal sense a powerful person. But ever since President Vladimir Putin and his handlers chose to move towards a dichotomous, ‘us versus them’ kind of mobilization, culture warriors have become increasingly central to Russian politics.
Mostly, this has involved helping Russians to feel a widening gap of values, understandings and interests with the West: Hence Medinsky’s mooted culture policy of 18 months ago, which – had it not proved so scandalous – would have made “Russia is not Europe” official government policy. But as time has passed, the concept of the other has expanded to include others much closer to home, particularly Ukraine and, now, Turkey.
The Kremlin’s response to Turkey’s downing of its bomber began with rhetoric but moved, inevitably, into the realm of sanctions. These began as they usually do in Russia, with the agricultural and customs authorities declaring that there were sudden sanitary problems with Turkish produce, but they escalated from there. Putin made things more official, decreeing on Saturday that all charter flights and tour groups to Turkey be canceled, ending the visa-free regime for Turkish citizens, banning Turks from being employed in Russia (!), and instructing the government to draw up a list of Turkish goods and organizations to be barred from Russia altogether.
That kind of thing Russians are used to (even if, with the cancellation of all travel to Egypt, they are running out of cheap places to spend their winter holidays): Russians have broadly supported the ban on European and American food imports and are, more generally, willing to take a blow for what they perceive to be the greater good.
Enter Medinsky, whose ministry sent a letter to regional governments – including the Republics of Altai, Bashkortostan, Khakassia, Sakha (Yakutia), Tatarstan and Tuva – demanding that they sever ties to the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TürkSOY).
Once again: Russia’s Ministry of Culture insists that the governments of ethnic republics withdraw from the global organization representing, preserving and promoting Turkic culture and heritage around the world.
This is important. It is also dangerous.
Thus far, the adversarial, identity-driven turn in Russian politics has avoided drawing domestic dividing lines beyond the question of who supports Putin, and who doesn’t. Those who don’t have been lined up in propaganda with Russia’s ‘enemies’ in the West, while the propaganda machine has gone to great lengths to portray the pro-Putin majority as a unified constituency, regardless of ethnicity and religion. Thus, participants in the pro-Kremlin ‘anti-Maidan’ rallies carried portraits of both Putin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Until now. Now, the Russian government is demanding that 12 million Russian citizens of Turkic ethnicity to choose between their citizenship and their ethnic identity.
Aside from being odious, this is ominous, for at least two reasons. For one thing, while most Russian Tatars, Bashkirs, Yakuts and others are likely to remain loyal, it is an insult nonetheless, and insults accumulate. When Putin’s rule does eventually come to an end and the Russian political firmament fractures, these accumulated insults will be remembered, and they will make reconciliation that much harder.
But whatever message Medinsky’s move sends to Russia’s largest minorities, it sends a clear message to the country’s bureaucrats, prosecutors, police, judges and ideologues: people of Turkic heritage are fair game. (Turks themselves have been fair game almost since news of the downing of the SU-24 broke.) Unless a stronger message is sent quickly from someone more powerful than Medinsky, expect these servants of the state to take the initiative, hounding and persecuting Turkic minorities individually and the NGOs who represent them, accusing them of disloyalty and espionage or any other crime they can cook up. It will take only a few high-profile cases to create politicized ethnic cleavages on a scale post-Soviet Russia has never seen.