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Ethnic Minority’ as a Category of Russian Public and Legislative Discourses

русская версия

Опубликовано на портале: 31-12-2010
Мир России. 2008.  Т. 17. № 3. С. 67-91. 
The paper examines the place, which the notion of ‘ethnic minority’ occupies in Russian public discourses. One should take into account that the definition of ‘minority’ is highly problematic as well as the exercising of an essentialist approach to ethnicity, which is closely related to historical retrospective. An apparently weak point of the minority concept is an assumption that a group can be viewed as an isolated and relatively homogeneous cultural entity, which has precise limits, terms of membership, and clear attributes, and that its members are capable of exercising solidarity. One should also bear in mind that the term ‘minority’ is engaged in political collisions and that it is overloaded with meanings. Ethnicity in Russia appears as a categorisation scheme for social and political space, means of classifying population, and a reference point of individual identification and identity. It manifests itself in a number of social and political institutions, discursive practices, as well as formal and informal prescriptions that affect people’s behaviour. Contemporary Russian discourses portray society as a combination of ‘ethnoses’, regarded as collective personalities with their own internal structure, interests, and the capability of acting consciously, etc. The key element of the existing interpretations of the term ‘minority’ is the idea of historical connection between a certain group and a definite (certain) territory. Correspondingly, those ethnic groups that reside outside ‘their own’ territories are considered ethnic minorities. The so-called ‘native’ and ‘titular’ communities are being excluded from the notion of ‘minority’, as well as the occasionally forming migrant groups. The public agenda on the question of minorities contains only general ideological issues, such as symbolical recognition of different group, but not utilitarian and practical points. The segment of Russian legislation that considers the problem of ethnicity is complex in both its structure and content. The legislative acts are addressed to ethnic groups as integrated entities. As for the ethnic categorisations, it is extremely diverse. The entire legislation that considers the problem of ethnicity is largely based on uniform ethno-nationalist assumptions: in particular, the concepts of group rights, ‘ethnic development’, and ‘inter-ethnic relations’ are extensively involved. The term ‘national minorities’ is also present among the accepted ethnicity-related categories. However, a clear legal definition of ‘minority’ has not been given so far, and the attempts to introduce it have yet given no results. The legislation concerning ethnic groups carries basically a symbolic value; in practical terms it is based on the principle of ‘a narrowing funnel’: advancement from general legislative declarations to their enforcement by means of a succession of bylaws implies gradual reduction of state’s guarantees and obligations. Russia also bears a number of international obligations regarding the protection of minorities; however, the analysis reveals that the country’s activities in this area are limited to demonstrative gestures addressed basically to external audience. The authors see two reasons why the notion of ‘minority’ does not play a substantive role in Russian public discourses. First, Russia does not percept itself as a nation-state in ethnical terms; secondly, the term ‘minority’ has a number of substitutes that are suitable for the same functions in symbolic organization of ethnic diversity.
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