Staunton, March 16 – Vladimir Putin has had no more success than any of his predecessors in designing an institution to deal with Russia’s “nationality question.” That is because for the institution to be successful, it would have to have enormous powers, something that would threaten not only other ministries but the supreme leader as well.
Consequently, most leaders have preferred either to do without such an institution relegating ethnic issues to the culture ministry and thus downgrading them or to have one that has little power, less funding, and serves more as a propaganda tool to suggest that the regime cares about what it does not want to admit is one of the most explosive issues of all.
It is already clear that Putin has chosen the latter path, and consequently those who expected more, mostly loyal supporters of anything the Kremlin proposes or does, are going to be disappointed.
At the end of last week, the Kremlin website posted a Putin order to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev directing him to come up with plans for an otherwise undefined agency that would deal with nationality questions by April 15 (kremlin.ru/assignments/47849). Reactions were not long in coming.
Some welcomed this as an indication that the Kremlin plans to pay more attention to this issue, while others expressed skepticism that such an agency would do any real good (nazaccent.ru/content/15179-agentstvo-po-delam-nacionalnostej.html). And politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky jumped in, in his case demanding that it be headed by an ethnic Russian, to make their usual points (nazaccent.ru/content/15185-zhirinovskij-vozglavit-agentstvo-po-delam-nacionalnostej.html).
But most of these reactions were to the idea of such an agency rather than to what it might actually look like. Today’s “Kommersant” provides some additional details as well as reactions to the whole project, reactions which suggest that whatever supporters hope for, this new body will not matter very much (kommersant.ru/doc/2687539).
While its responsibilities are nominally very great, including the promotion of national unity, the proposed Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs will not have the status, financing or support to carry them out. Indeed, the whole thing looks like putting a propaganda bandage for a major suppurating wound.
“Kommersant” suggested why that is so: On the release of the Kremlin order, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that “the creation of the new agency must not lead to an increase in government staffing” and that it will not require any additional allocation of government funds.
That suggests that at most the new agency, however much ballyhooed it may be, will be little more than a rearranging of existing chairs, something that has been going on since the liquidation of the regional affairs ministry last September and the transfer of some of its “ethnic” functions to the culture ministry.
That conclusion is further strengthened by the Moscow newspaper’s statement, on the basis of an anonymous source in the Presidential Administration, that the head of the new agency will be Aleksandr Zhuravsky, a deputy minister of culture who oversees that ministry’s department for inter-ethnic relations.
And given that the Russian government has already cut back funds for this area because of budgetary pressures, the possibility that this new agency will in fact do something significant strains credulity, albeit not of those who view it as yet another place where they can push their ideas or extract what budgetary funds may be available.