24.01.23 Analytics

Divided Peoples: How Might the War in Ukraine Shift the Balance of Inter-ethnic Relations in Russia?

Vsevolod Bederson
In the 2000s, national autonomy within Russia became the linchpin and spearhead of the processes of de-democratisation and power centralisation that were occurring. They even received a collective name — ‘electoral sultanates’. And, in 2022, ethnic Buryats, Yakuts, Bashkirs, and Dagestani peoples found themselves at the forefront of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, after the failed blitzkrieg and in the wake of significant human losses, when these regions felt a particularly heavy burden from ‘partial’ mobilisation, it was in these areas that the most energetic and largest anti-war protests occurred. One can only assume that the intensification of anti-colonial discourses, as well as the likely future weakening of the federal centre against the backdrop of Russia's burgeoning ethno-political and separatist sentiments, will act as a catalyst for Russia's burgeoning ethno-political and separatist sentiments. In any case, it is highly likely that these areas will no longer be central to the consolidation of Russian authoritarianism. This is especially true given that the first signs of such a trend were visible prior to the war.

From the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the most striking features was the high concentration of ethnic minorities among the ranks of the Russian military (at the time, contract servicemen). While there is no information on the ethnic composition of the Russian troops, there was a clear prevalence of non-Russian surnames among the first confirmed casualties. While Chechen Rosgvardia units, who had been sent to the war zone by decree of Ramzan Kadyrov, actively publicised their participation in the war, the involvement of large numbers of people from other ethnic regions was discovered through journalistic investigations. 

As previously reported by Re: Russia, the data available regarding the number of confirmed losses of Russian servicemen from February 24 to December 26, 2022 was gathered by the BBC and Mediazona. Analysts for the Telegram channel ‘Demography has Fallen’ found that the number of confirmed deaths in the Republic of Tuva exceeds the Russian average per 100 thousand adult males (33 deaths per 100 thousand) by 5.5 times (172 per 100 thousand), in Buryatia by more than 5 times (162 per 100 thousand), in North Ossetia and the Altai Republic by 3 times (109 and 102 per 100 thousand, respectively), and in the Nenets and Chukotka Autonomous District by more than 2 times (78 people and 76 per hundred thousand, respectively). 

At the same time, during ‘partial’ mobilisation it was these same ethnic republics which became the primary source from which to replenish the troops. According to an investigation by ‘Important Stories,’ Krasnoyarsk Krai mobilised 4.5 times more men than was outlined in the Defence Minister's mobilisation order, with ethnic regions also mobilising more than was set out in this document — Buryatia (3 times more), Dagestan (2 times more), and Kalmykia (1.8 times more). It was against this backdrop that Dagestan, Buryatia, and Yakutia became the regions with the most vocal and numerous anti-mobilisation protests. 

Ethnic regions were among the first to be incorporated into the political vertical in the early 2000s, becoming a reliable source of controlled electoral support for Putin, United Russia, and administrative candidates at all election levels. They were dubbed 'electoral sultanates' as a result of this. The economically dependent rural populations of ethnic republics, according to political scientist Henry Hale, forms the basis of United Russia's dominance in representative bodies. This was accomplished through both direct rigging and the organisation of controlled voting, which was most easily accomplished among rural ethnic groups due to the density of ties and the dependability of paternalist networks. Hale has also demonstrated that the loyalty of ethnic republics was bought by the centre's near-total subsidisation of the regions. At the same time, with the exception of the Tyumen’s oil and gas-rich districts, they remained regions with a lower standard of living than the Russian average. 

Meanwhile, at both the individual and everyday levels, issues of ethnic relations in Russian society have had colonial overtones. In its review titled ‘The Non-Russian World,’ the publication Kholod cites many illustrative examples in which ethnic Kalmyks, Tatars, Bashkirs, Buryats, Laks, and Yakuts share their experiences of everyday discrimination when seeking housing, obtaining school and university education, interacting with authorities at the lowest levels, and so on. At the same time, as noted in the review, such discrimination creates a sense of ‘secondary citizenship’ for ethnic minorities in relation to the ethnic Russian population. Thus, while ethnic republics have played an important role in building an effective system of political control in Russia, their emphasised loyalty to the Kremlin has not only failed to curb, but has exacerbated issues of their colonial ‘secondary status’. 

Sociologists Alexey Bessudnov and Andrei Shcherbak conducted fieldwork to investigate the problem of ethnic discrimination in the labour market, concluding that discrimination does occur but is structurally complex. Not all ‘non-Russians’ face increased discrimination, and this is experienced most often by ethnic groups of southern origin (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Chechens, Azeris, Georgians, and Armenians), compared with ethnic groups of European origin (Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Latvians, and Lithuanians). Sociologists Olga Avdeeva and Richard Matland conducted a laboratory experiment to determine whether the ethnicity of a mayor of a Russian city influences how citizens of different ethnic groups evaluate his performance. Their findings suggest that ethnicity is a factor in regions that are ethnically polarised. In Arkhangelsk Oblast, Buryatia, Tatarstan, and Yakutia, for example, ethnicity only played a role in evaluating the performance of a public figure in the Sakha Republic: Yakuts rated the ethnically Yakut mayor higher, while Russians demonstrated more loyalty towards an ethnically Russian mayor. 

For a long time, issues of ethnicity were considered to be confined to private interpersonal relationships, while political authorities were able to confidently rely on support from ethnic groups. However, even before the war, this situation had begun to shift. For example, large and successful civic protest movements against the construction of an incinerator plant in Shiyes on the border between Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Komi Republic, as well as protests in Bashkortostan against the destruction of the Kushtau Shikhan, had both a clear ethnic and post-colonial dimension. 

The Kremlin's plan to merge the Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug sparked widespread opposition in 2020, with the plans either halted or scrapped entirely. The most vocal opponents were ethnic Nenets, who saw the merger as a threat to their language and culture. The Autonomous Okrug’s voting patterns shifted as a result of this incident: the region was the only subject of the Russian Federation that did not support the 2020 constitutional amendments (55.25% opposed and 43.78% in favour), and United Russia received only 29.1% in the region's State Duma elections a year later, one of the party’s worst electoral performances across the country.

The most significant reason for this imbalance was a 2017 law concerning the ‘voluntary study’ of ethnic minority languages, which allowed schools to get rid of the study of ‘native languages’. The law ignited a storm of criticism and protests, with the social movement Democratic Congress of the Peoples of Russia condemning it as unconstitutional. Ethnic groups from Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, North Ossetia, Mari El, Sakha-Yakutia, Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Altai, Bashkortostan, and Komi supported the demand to change the new language policy. Protests by ethnic activists in Bashkortostan, for example, demanded ‘compulsory teaching of the Bashkir language as a state language in schools’ and the restoration of school hours previously allocated for its study. 

Minority activists who have expressed their opposition to this law have been subject to repression. However, as sociologist Guzel Yusupova points out, the pressure placed by the Centre on social movements for the protection of minority languages has only served to galvanise further the affected populations against Moscow’s language policy. According to a study conducted by political scientist Stanislav Shkel, the 2017 language reform has had a significant impact on the loyalty of ethnic minorities to the central authorities. United Russia's electoral ratings did not fall in regions where local elites were able to control discontent towards the new law and thus extinguish incipient protest (Tatarstan and Chuvashia). However, in areas where elites rushed to express loyalty and support the law without considering the views of their ethnic populations (Bashkortostan and Yakutia), the electoral behaviour of citizens has changed. This was evident in the results of both the 2018 Presidential election and the referendum on the 2020 constitutional amendments. 

There is reason to believe that the war in Ukraine, as well as the active use of minority soldiers in military operations, will further alter the political balance when it comes to the relationship between the country’s ethnic regions and Moscow. Based on the findings of a representative Levada Center poll, sociologist Kyle Marquardt contends that ethnic Buryats and Tatars in Buryatia and Tatarstan differ from ethnic Russians in two important ways: they demonstrate less support towards both Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. Although Marquardt acknowledges that his conclusions are tentative due to the specificities of the available survey data, the impact of the war on the political-ethnic polarisation of Russian society appears to be very significant. 

It appears especially consequential that this data refers to Buryatia and Tatarstan. Both regions, in their own way, have long demonstrated their loyalty to the Kremlin. Both have produced positive results for United Russia, and Buryat contract soldiers participated in Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 in large numbers. It was against this context that civil protests against mobilisation and the war in general took place in Buryatia. Tatarstan, on the other hand, is a unique region as local elites have managed to strike a favourable balance between loyalty to the centre, protection of the titular ethnic group's interests, and their own relative autonomy in the post-Soviet period. And, if public opinion of ethnic groups within these regions has shifted towards polarisation along ethnic lines when it comes to the regime's core issues — support for Putin and the war — this could have significant political ramifications. 

Historian Yuri Slezkin famously adopted the metaphor of a ‘communal flat’ to describe the ethnic politics of the USSR. On the one hand, Soviet authorities were concerned that ethnic minorities should preserve their material culture, language, and declaratory administrative autonomy. But, on the other hand, they implemented strict rules upon the lives of various peoples, limiting their ability to leave the rooms assigned to them in this metaphorical 'communal apartment'. Russians served as the glue binding together this general colonial model, and was patron of the entire ‘family’ of peoples. The legacy of this model is central to the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The narrative of Ukraine's failure as a state and the subordination of Ukrainian culture to Russian culture is rooted in tsarist and then Soviet Russia's traditional colonial ethnic policies. This implies that the outcome of the war and its consequences will have a significant impact on more than just the political order of the post-Soviet space. It is highly likely that it will force the centre and Russia's ethnic republics to reconsider their relationship. This is especially true given that the centralising policy of the 2010s laid the groundwork for this shift.