Novaya Gazeta: Nationalism and Social Liberalism

June 15, 2012

In this third installment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s public lecture series (read previous lectures here and here) published in Novaya Gazeta, the topic of nationalism is explored alongside the values of social liberalism.

The essence of the historical moment that Russia is currently experiencing consists of the fact that empire has completely exhausted itself as a form of state, while the nation-state that ought to have succeeded it has yet to see the light of day. The Russian state has gotten stuck at a historical backwater railway station lost between empire and nation-state, and is not only not going forward, but at times is even starting to move in reverse.

One of the reasons why “our armored train” is standing for so long on this historical railroad siding is an ideological misconception, in consequence of which Russian liberalism can not stand nationalism, while nationalism denies liberalism as one of its foundations. Incidentally, this does not stop either liberals or nationalists from frequently discoursing about empire, and even about a “liberal empire”.

All of this compels me to take a much closer look at the correlation between liberalism and nationalism, so as to try and get rid of many of the prejudices inherent to both Russian liberals and Russian nationalists. And indeed, it is this desire that has suggested the topic for the third lecture – “Nationalism and social liberalism”. However, before getting to the substance of the topic, I shall allow myself to make a few important remarks of a general character.

On liberalism

It would be wrong to reduce the substance of liberalism down to merely liberal ideology. In the final analysis, the view of the person as a free individual, as the objective and the measuring stick of the success of any societal processes, has a much longer history than does liberal ideology, which arose in the 17th century as the political banner of the bourgeoisie as it was building the Early Modern History of Europe on the shattered wreckage of feudalism.

It can be said that the main postulates of liberalism: about the equality of people, about internal liberty and the dignity of the individual, about the value of human life – already follow directly from the Bible: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him…”

And indeed, liberalism grew out of radical religious currents, among other things, while the influence of the Christian conception of the individual on classical liberal theory was most direct and immediate indeed. It is sufficient to recall John Locke, who was one of the first to justify “natural, God-given human rights”….

One of the manifestations of the presence of Christian roots in modern-day liberalism, by the way, became the recognition, now universally accepted in the civilized world, that the minority needs to be protected from the “common will” of the majority. Every person enjoys the right of choice, and nobody can deprive him of this right, given to him by God.

That said, liberalism – is “not a dogma, but a guide to action”. This is merely a general “strategic” direction, and we are offered the opportunity to solve the problems facing society within this framework. But the concrete methods can be very diverse indeed, and, as a rule, are prompted by political practice.

On nationalism

Nationalism – an ideology, at the foundation of which lies the recognition of the nation as the highest value. At first glance, nationalism and liberalism are in opposition with one another: the cornerstone of the first is a human community, while the main priority of the second – is the individual person, his rights and liberties. But this contradiction, which seems so obvious at first glance, is actually illusory. In order to see this, we need, first and foremost, to figure out just what it is that we mean by “nation”.

One side regard the nation first and foremost as a cultural community. As they see it, the nation – this is a group of people united by a complex of cultural values that are significant for them: language, religion, history (i.e. what they consider to be their history), literature, art, everyday habits, etc. Moreover, what is being spoken of is specifically a comprehensive awareness, in which, if anything, only language is an absolutely irreplaceable element; as to the rest, they can be present to a greater or lesser degree, right on up to complete absence (atheism).

The other side, on the contrary, deem a political or civic community to be the more significant, irrespective of ethnic or cultural belonging. As they see it, the nation – is a community of “citizens”, that is a kind of political unification.

It is obvious that the truth is found somewhere in the middle. One way or another, a nation – this is an aggregate of people who are culturally close, connected with one another politically and aware of themselves as a single cultural and political whole. In this situation, it is also customary to speak about a state-nation. The interests of an individual person and of society as a whole must be harmonized in a state-nation.

A nation can not be reduced to an ethnos, but neither can it be regarded in isolation from a thoroughly specific cultural community. From my point of view, all the attempts of the Soviet power to experimentally “breed” some kind of colorless “political nation” – a new historical community of “Soviet people” – fell through completely, despite individual successes attained in nurturing ethnic tolerance.

I judge by myself. I know many wonderful people, my fellow citizens, from Ingushetia, Buryatia, Daghestan, whom it would be a pleasure for me to visit or to receive in my home. But to live permanently in a mode that is alien to me, to try to conform to traditions to which I am not accustomed, in a restricted space – would be a needless ordeal for both me and them. At the same time, being found among ethnically Russian people in Chita or Tomsk oblasts, which are considerably further away from Moscow, I feel myself quite at home from the point of view of culture, everyday life, traditions.

In any case, I consider it a mistake to liken nationalism – the ideology of, among other things, a multitude of national-liberation movements, the ideology that in the 19th century went hand in hand with liberalism (often being represented by the very same people), – with chauvinism, racism, and so much the more – with nazism. There is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this way, just like the western radicals did in their time with social democracy, having likened it to bolshevism and stalinism.

On liberal nationalism

Ethnic-Russian liberals prefer not to touch the topic of nationalism. They approach nationalist rhetoric with prejudice. Often this is justified, since in Russian conditions nationalism very often descends into chauvinism. But on the whole, I do not support the position of keeping silent in respect of this question, nor the opinion about the “extra-national” character of liberalism.

The paradox consists of the fact that in the precise sense of the word, liberalism actually coincides with nationalism. A nation is a social community, based on a unity of both cultural and political values. Real nationalism has to be liberal. A people transforms into a nation when liberty becomes one of the base values for it.

Upon careful examination, the most important, system-formational elements of modern-day liberal nationalism turn out to be the priority of individual rights, reflected in the doctrine of human rights, a belief in the equal value of people irrespective of their race, creed, social status and nationality; that is, decidedly liberal values.

Logically following from here is a recognition of the equality of nations and a rejection of the ethnic doctrine, when membership in a nation is determined by the attribute of blood. By the way, when speaking of ethnic Russians, who have experienced an invasion from another land lasting many centuries, a civil and two world wars, in the course of which entire peoples were shuffled around on the continent, it would be entirely inappropriate to discourse upon “ethnic purity”.

For this same reason, liberal nationalism recognizes for each nation the right to construct its own democratic statehood. In this sense, one of the first programs of liberal nationalism to have been voiced is considered to be American president Woodrow Wilson’s “fourteen points”.
On the whole, in the opinion of liberals, people choose what nationality they belong to, albeit not always by themselves (more often their parents do this). But, nevertheless, this is specifically a choice, which may be changed if a person so desires.

In connection with liberal nationalism, it is imperative to make mention too of polyculturalism (multiculturalism) – an intellectual movement that arose in the second half of the 20th century and calls for preserving, developing the multiculturality of existing states, for respecting the cultural peculiarities of the peoples comprising them.

Liberalism recognizes this approach on the strength of its own position on the right of choice by a person of his cultural identity. But, at the same time, placing human rights in first place, liberalism can not agree with “peculiarities” that infringe on these rights. For example, forced marriages, intolerance – religious and otherwise, etc.

The liberal approach in the nationality question can be succinctly formulated thus: “be tolerant towards those who are tolerant themselves”.

On the nationality question in Russia

Russia in the nationality sense represents of itself a complex object, albeit not in the least bit unique. The diversity of the peoples populating our country is not at all greater than in a whole series of Asian states, while the long-term co-existence of national autonomies within the framework of a unified state has been known since the times of the Roman Empire.

What makes our situation unusual – this is the political position of the numerically largest, ethnic-Russian nation. Ethnic Russians in the USSR, and subsequently in Russia as well, have for nearly 100 years already been deprived of a part of the political rights that are granted to other more or less numerically large nations entering into the composition first of the union, and now – of the Russian federative state.

The paradox here is in that the state as a whole is not officially ethnically Russian, it is “supranational”, but then within this state there exist “state autonomies” for minority nations. That is, a state autonomy in relation to ethnic Russians does exist, and yet an actual ethnic-Russian state supposedly does not. You can not have it both ways here: either the state is supranational and there must not be any autonomies, or the autonomies remain, but then the state needs to be recognized as ethnically Russian…

Such a situation has formed historically. It is sufficient to recall that in the Soviet years the only union republic that did not have a republican CC of the ruling party (factually fulfilling the role of the highest state organ on the territory under its jurisdiction) was none other than the RSFSR. To say that the union CC executed this role in the way that it should have been executed – impossible.

Nikita Khrushchev’s decision on the Crimea – merely the most vivid example, but hardly the only one, of the possible consequences of the absence of political protection of the interests of the ethnic-Russian people in intra-state relations. Although today, of course, this should not be reason for grievances against the fraternal Ukrainian people.

One can argue for a long time about whether the deep cultural and demographic degradation of many indigenously ethnic-Russian lands is the result of this circumstance, but it is impossible, while remaining a liberal, not to support the demand of representatives of the ethnic-Russian nation for it to be granted equal political rights in a new, federal state – Russia.

Thanks to the much more restricted self-administration of the Russian regions in comparison with the national republics, it is far more complex for “Vladimir Russians”, “Yaroslavl Russians”, “Voronezh Russians” than it is for the titular nations of the autonomies of Russia to realize their interests in the realm of culture, education, lawmaking.

The ethnic-Russian nation turns out to be artificially disunited politically. And yet, by the way, the situation of the artificial disuniting of nations was examined by the ECHR as applies to the Balkan conflict, and was recognized as a special form of genocide . Therefore the demand to change the situation of the ethnic Russians in Russia – is justified.

Liberalism and the nationality question in Russia

What variants can liberals offer the ethnic-Russian people?

The first dilemma that we need to resolve – to separate or not to separate? The question – is as old as the world, but always remains relevant. What, it would seem, could be simpler than for the ethnic Russians to get rid of all the ethnic non-Russians and become, at last, their own, “nationally pure” state, where all are equal by definition, because all by definition – are ethnic Russians.

I deem that the further division of the country with the objective of protecting the rights of the ethnic-Russian people and casting off the “national peripheries”, as was done in 1991, is from all appearances not a way out of the situation. Even more precisely, this is not a way out at all, but a way into yet another historical dead end.

The current geopolitical situation does not leave big chances for the independent survival of newly formed states, be it an “ethnically Russian” one or those of “ethnic non-Russians”. And, all the more so, we can not count on the loyalty of the newly formed “limitrophes” in relation to Russia. The interests of the new “small Russia” will thereby be even more infringed upon. The interests of millions of ethnic Russians and mixed families who have ended up once again on “detached” territories may be infringed upon concurrently. We were witness to such tragedies during the breakup of the USSR. A repetition would become a catastrophe.

The founding of an independent ethnic-Russian state within today’s Russia would be even stranger. This would become a step backwards towards an archaic imperial structure in times when empires have become a vestige of the past. The breakup of such an empire would be inevitable after a very brief period of time. As a result, we would come to the previously examined variant with “separation”, only not a voluntary one, but voluntary-compulsory, accompanied by a multitude of local civil wars.

So the choice is really not large at all and comes down to the “consensus democracy” of sorts envisaged by our Constitution, the spirit of which has been consistently destroyed through the efforts of the executive power with the acquiescence of the constitutional court. The question would never stand in such an acute and “solutionless” form if the principles laid in the current constitution actually functioned. In such a manner, I see the resolution of the nationality question through the development of democracy and the maximum use of those opportunities that it offers for the resolution of this kind of conflicts.

Laid in the Constitution are latent mechanisms capable of removing the accumulating contradictions between the position of the titular nation and national minorities. This is what the system of “checks and balances” exists for; of course, when it is actually functioning in reality, and is not a decorative political ornament.

While preserving the supranational role of the President, as the guarantor of the rights of all citizens, it is imperative to restore and expand the powers of the State Duma, the makeup of which by definition indirectly reflects the main proportions of the social and nationality makeup of the electorate. In this situation, it is precisely the State Duma that would be the organ reflecting the state unity of the ethnic-Russian people, functioning in consideration of the opinion of the representatives of the rest of the peoples entering into the composition of Russia. Of course, the procedural rules of such a State Duma would need to be adjusted in such a manner that taking the opinion of the minority into account would become mandatory.

At the same time, the Federation Council, created on a base of regional representation, would become what it should have been all along right from the start – an organ for ensuring the equality of all the nations in the composition of the federal state, which is called upon to balance the natural inequality created by proportional representation in the lower chamber of parliament.

The federal government in such a situation would at last become, as is customary in the world, financially under the control of the parliament, providing for the execution of the compromise decisions that have been found in the parliament, including in the realm of nationality, economic and social policy. But specifically decisions arising in consequence of a search for compromise between people’s representatives, who reflect the interests of their electorates, and not decisions for which these representatives voted mechanically on orders from the Kremlin.

The current practice, when one person attempts to dictate rules of behavior to the entire country, on the base of his own, at times quite controversial notions about what is happening and what is desired – is faulty right from the start. The impossibility for one individual to effectively see, understand and balance the interests of heterogeneous groups of people on a huge territory, all the more so – in a multi-national country, is self-evident.

From the practical point of view, a situation when the parliament is deprived of the greater part of the powers of authority – this is not only a factual derogation of democracy. What this is is a limiting of ethnic-Russian national statehood in favor of the supranational, autocratic bureaucracy that has formed the executive vertical. In an analogous manner, the federal executive power curtails both the rights of local self-administration and the powers of the subjects of the Federation.

In such a manner, from the position of liberalism, the nationality question can and must be one of the main questions demanding its resolution in today’s Russia; moreover, in the context of protecting the rights both of the national minorities (about which people speak much and with pleasure), and in the context of protecting the rights of the native ethnic-Russian people (about which people speak little and without pleasure).

The resolution of the nationality question in Russia in the strategic, global perspective is possible only within the framework of the construction of a truly democratic state; that is, a genuine nation-state, in which a really functioning system of separation of powers allows the interests of the ethnic-Russian nation to be flexibly protected without infringing on the rights of other nationalities.

The bureaucracy and the nationality question in Russia

Just what do we see today?

The power is attempting to resolve the nationality question in a diametrically opposed key, relying on hard-line administration and de facto reinstating the imperial model that has already demonstrated its ineffectiveness on many an occasion.

Factually, the regional power and local self-administration of the majority of the regions have been artificially put in a deficit-budget position, compelled to exist on account of federal subventions. Regional incomes are seized in volumes knowingly much larger than required for federal needs.

To justify such a practice with arguments about “heightening budgetary discipline” is impossible, first and foremost because it is unconstitutional. The Constitution, having codified a federative structure, thereby secured for the subjects of the federation the right to determine their fate by themselves. At the foundation of the budgetary pyramid must lie real, proper budgets of the subjects of the federation and a federal budget derived from them. But everything is just the opposite with us – at the foundation of the budgetary pyramid lies the fat federal budget, filled on account of the factual confiscation of funds from the regions, and the anemic budgets of the subjects of the federation dependent on it.

This is the alpha and the omega, the “secret financial constitution” as it were of the modern Russian state. The inverted budgetary pyramid holds back the development of the regions and, in the final analysis, the development of the social and spiritual strength of the ethnic-Russian people. And talk about “budgetary discipline” is merely a cover for this lamentable fact: this “discipline”, constantly being demolished at the federal level, does not compensate for the reduction in the interest of the regional elites in stimulating the economic development of their own territories.

Such a policy is the thought-out line of the federal bureaucracy towards strengthening their own positions on account of curtailing national interests, among others that of the ethnic-Russian people as well.

The bureaucracy has not only assumed the function of supranational arbiter, having taken it away from the representative organs of power. It has not only assumed the right to monopolistically express the interests of the ethnic-Russian people, it also uses this assumed right to purchase the loyalty of the national autonomies.

The purchased loyalty, in its turn, is expended not on the protection of the lawful rights of citizens, including the ethnic-Russian population of the autonomies, where the local elites are building feudal regimes and sometimes even clerical ones with such connivance, but on the pseudo-legitimization its own supranational power.

In such a manner, the federal executive power appears in the capacity of an occupation regime – collecting not taxes, but tribute; that is, not bearing any responsibility before its “subjects”. At the everyday level, this manifests itself in the day-to-day behavior of functionaries and siloviki, who often consider themselves a separate, higher caste, and not the servants of their people.

In the situation that has formed, the creation of a new bureaucratic formation, like a “committee for nationalities affairs” – is no more than just another subterfuge, putting off until the future the full and proper resolution of the nationality question by way of a return to state construction on the basis of the federative and democratic principles codified in the Constitution.

Liberalism and immigration

One of the most burning aspects of nationality policy is the question of the status of foreign citizens coming to Russia to work or for permanent residence, in other words the problem of “migrants”. It can not be said that Russia – this is the only country where the question of migrants is a sensitive one, but taking into account the demographic situation that is taking shape, it can be said that it is not as sensitive in a single one of the civilized countries.

The bureaucracy is not interested in a real resolution of the migration problem. Tough measures, constant new bureaucratic barriers and prohibitions are aimed not at resolving this question in national interests, but at the further intimidation of migrants, their transformation into an even more illegitimate – meaning even more rightless – workforce. Additional opportunities are thereby created for corruption and theft from the treasury.

Real successes in attracting educated immigrants, in raising the educational and cultural level of the new arrivals, in granting them opportunities for integration into Russian society would deprive the bureaucracy and the business that works together with it of a slave labor pool, would liquidate a convenient lightning rod for society’s discontent.

For this same reason, by the way, over a period of many years, despite all the pretty-sounding slogans about modernization, the power is consistently pushing active, educated, young people out of the country, is creating an unacceptable milieu for the return of those who have gotten a good education beyond the border and would desire to live and work in Russia. On the other hand, it is opening up the borders for tens of millions of illiterate, illegitimate migrants, incapable of and uninterested in integrating into Russian society, adopting the cultural traditions of those regions where they settle.

To say one thing and do something else – the favorite device of our power, but the decade that has passed no longer allows what has been done to be blamed on the “turbulent nineties”.

So what does a genuinely liberal approach to migration policy consist of? I would reduce it to several base postulates:

–  the factual, and not declarative, equality of the rights of people legitimately remaining in Russia and desiring to integrate into our cultural milieu;
–  the real, and not declarative, execution of the law in relation to those abusing our hospitality, and in an even greater degree – towards the officials and their business partners who enrich themselves on the misfortune of others;
–  the creation of conditions for attracting educated, modern youth to Russia by way of the democratization of civic and economic life.
On the cooperation of liberals and nationalists.

The efforts of the ruling bureaucracy to push the liberal and national movements “into opposite corners”, its never-ending attempts to besmirch the search for compromises should not give rise in the liberal milieu to a sense that it is morally unacceptable to interact with people who adhere to national-democratic views.

A real liberal respects the right of any person to stand up for his point of view; therefore, the search for a compromise, interaction without rejection of one’s own base principles can not be morally flawed no matter what.

After all, liberals have historically supported the right of nations to self-determination, up to and including the creation of their own state, and there are no grounds to deny the ethnic-Russian people this right.

At the same time, liberal principles do not allow cooperation with forces that refuse in principle to recognize the human rights of representatives of another nation, race, creed.

The only thing possible here is to attempt to achieve an understanding on the rules of political confrontation. Liberalism has a rich history of resolving nationality conflicts, a lot of experience has been generated. Therefore Russian liberals actually do have something to work from.

But it is imperative not to forget the main thing: the time of empire is past, while the time of nations – is not. It is precisely the attempts to reconstruct empire at any cost, acting counter to history, that today represent the biggest threat both for the ethnic-Russian people, and for the other peoples populating Russia.

Today’s person is not ready to abandon national self-identification in a globalizing world. It is possible that this is one of the types of human diversity, which, on the one hand, allows us to sense our unity with other people, and on the other – creates incentives for development for humanity as a whole.

Participating in national self-determination, striving for changes in the state structure, liberals in Russia are consistently standing up for human rights as the highest value, the ultimate objective of state and national construction. Including in the interests of the individual ethnic-Russian person, in the interests of the entire ethnic-Russian nation.