Russian Minority Politics in Post-Soviet Latvia and Kyrgyzstan: The Transformative Power of Informal Networks (National and Ethnic Conflict in the 21st Century)

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9780812242218: Russian Minority Politics in Post-Soviet Latvia and Kyrgyzstan: The Transformative Power of Informal Networks (National and Ethnic Conflict in the 21st Century)
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The collapse of the Soviet Union suddenly rendered ethnic Russians living in non-Russian successor states like Latvia and Kyrgyzstan new minorities subject to dramatic political, economic, and social upheaval. As elites in these new states implemented formal policies and condoned informal practices that privileged non-Russians, ethnic Russians had to react. In Russian Minority Politics in Post-Soviet Latvia and Kyrgyzstan, Michele E. Commercio draws on extensive field research, including hundreds of personal interviews, to analyze the responses of minority Russians to such policies and practices. In particular, she focuses on the role played by formal and informal institutions in the crystallization of Russian attitudes, preferences, and behaviors in these states.

Commercio asks why there is more out-migration and less political mobilization among Russians in Kyrgyzstan, a state that adopts policies that placate both Kyrgyz and Russians, and less out-migration and more political mobilization among Russians in Latvia, a state that adopts policies that favor Latvians at the expense of Russians. Challenging current thinking, she suggests that the answer to this question lies in the power of informal networks.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist party, Komsomol youth organization, and KGB networks were transformed into informal networks. Russians in Kyrgyzstan were for various reasons isolated from such networks, and this isolation restricted their access to the country's private sector, making it difficult for them to create effective associations capable of representing their interests. This resulted in a high level of Russian exit and the silencing of Russian voices. In contrast, Russians in Latvia were well connected to such networks, which provided them with access to the country's private sector and facilitated the establishment of political parties and nongovernmental organizations that represented their interests. This led to a low level of Russian exit and high level of Russian voice. Commercio concludes that informal networks have a stronger influence on minority politics than formal institutions.

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About the Author:

Michele E. Commercio teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
"What the Hell Kind of 'Non-Native' Am I?"

To the Kazakh who divides us into "native" and "non-native"

An evil will has made it so more than once already:
Broken fates scattered,
Shaking, dangling, buried around the world
In a foreign land, on a foreign shore. . . .
LEAVE? I DON'T WANT TO, I CAN'T!

So yes, it is not only war that kills
Not only war that grays the hair.
Striking down on the spot, as if with a stray bullet,
The word of lead—"non-native."

For centuries we shared joy and tears,
We tended our gardens and raised our children,
With roots grown into this land together with you—
What the hell kind of "non-native" am I?

Our grandfathers' graves are here, our children were born here,
Here our talents and skills turned into business.
Our fathers were comrades-in-arms in the war.
What the hell kind of "non-native" am I?

My grandson and your granddaughter have been married for a long time.
Borshch and besbarmak go great together.
But you—for your own—just like clockwork. . . .
What the hell kind of "non-native" am I?

You believe in Allah according to your faith?
Well, He doesn't teach people evil.
I don't know a single verse in the Koran
Where the word "non-native" appears.

You've decided to sow sparks of dissent?
But won't our children have to put out this fire?
Over you hangs a curse
Which will be uttered by your "native" grandson.

This stupid favorite troubles your soul?
But his age is short—he knows this.
Chokan and Abai don't agree with you.
They would recognize me as native.

The use of the phrase "non-native" in this poem about Russian-Kazakh relations suggests that though not characterized by violence, ethnic relations in post-Soviet Kazakhstan can be tense. Like the poem, which serves as a metaphor for this book, the war between Russia and Georgia that broke out in 2008 indicates the continued relevance of ethnic conflict in the post-Soviet region. The war concerned South Ossetia, a separatist region in Georgia that declared its independence in the early 1990s. The confrontation stemmed, in part, from the fact that South Ossetians have long declared a collective desire to live among "their own," or with North Ossetians who reside across the border within the Russian Federation. While Russia may be willing to accommodate this request, Georgia is committed to the preservation of its territorial integrity. Although Russia recognizes South Ossetia's independence, the international community considers the region an integral part of Georgia. This book is about ethnic relations between Russians and non-Russians in certain Central Asian and Baltic states. While some Russians in these states want to live among "their own" and thus migrate to Russia, others have no desire to abandon what they view as their homeland and therefore simply coexist or attempt to organize themselves on a political basis.

The Meaning of To the Kazakh who divides us into "native" and "non-native"

Though the poem entitled To the Kazakh who divides us into "native" and "non-native" refers to Russians in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, it depicts the plight of Russians in many post-Soviet states including Kyrgyzstan and Latvia. Svetlana Nazarova, a middle-aged Russian woman who lives in Almaty and edits a local journal, wrote the poem in 1997—Kazakhstan's officially designated "year of ethnic harmony." Three years later, Nazarova stood in front of a large group of people who had come together to celebrate Russian culture. Before she recited her prose, the poet explained that despite the fact that she and her family had lived in Kazakhstan for generations and considered Kazakhstan their homeland, since the Soviet Union's demise Kazakhs had come to regard them as non-native.

The poem is an artistic attempt to express this irony and in so doing unite Russians who are less content in post-Soviet Kazakhstan than they were in Soviet Kazakhstan. Nazarova achieved her objective. Several Russians who were touched by the sentiment of her eloquent yet simultaneously germane prose surrounded Nazarova at the end of the evening to receive an autographed copy of the poem. During an interview I had the pleasure of conducting a few weeks later, the poet described her view of the Russian minority question as follows: the status of Russians in Kazakhstan deteriorated once the country declared itself independent because this historic change in status gave Kazakhs the freedom to declare Russians colonizers and carriers of imperial policy and to create a state of and for the indigenous population. In other words, independence gave Kazakhs the freedom to "nationalize" their state, or to build a state of and for ethnic Kazakhs.

The widely held perception among Russians that Kazakhs consider them non-native has a decisive impact on their attitudes, preferences, and behavior. This book offers a systematic comparative analysis of the initial stage of post-communist transition—1991 to 2005—and its effects on Russian minority populations in two newly independent states: Kyrgyzstan and Latvia. Keeping in mind causal mechanisms embedded in long-term historical processes, the analysis focuses on the role played by formal and informal institutions in the formation of Russian attitudes, preferences, and behavior in these states. I argue in general that informal institutions have a stronger influence on Russian minority politics than formal institutions, and in particular that the absence or presence of dense interpersonal informal networks explains different responses of Russians in Kyrgyzstan and Latvia to various forms of discrimination. The emphasis I place on informal institutions contributes to a growing body of research that suggests that many rules of the game structuring political life are established, communicated, and followed outside official boundaries. Informal institutions can therefore be considered an integral element of a complex constellation of variables that shapes outcomes related to minority politics. This collection of variables in the Kyrgyz and Latvian cases is simultaneously rooted in history and connected to level of economic development.

The approximately twenty-five million Russians who lived outside Russia proper but within the former Soviet Union suddenly acquired minority status when Lenin's geopolitical creation collapsed in 1991. The federation's disintegration forced these Russians to cope with various implications of minority status in new conditions characterized by dramatic political, economic, and social upheaval. The Russian minority problem raises compelling questions regarding nationalism and ethnic conflict, such as what factors encourage peaceful coexistence in potentially unstable multiethnic states, and how do those factors influence post-communist development? At the same time, the Kyrgyz and Latvian cases raise an important question concerning minority responses to a range of post-communist challenges: Why is there more out-migration and less political mobilization among Russians in Kyrgyzstan, a state that implements accommodating policies, and less out-migration and more political mobilization among Russians in Latvia, a state that implements antagonistic policies? In probing these questions I take into account contrasting historical legacies of state socialism, perceptions of existing socioeconomic opportunity, and future expectations of socioeconomic mobility.

Because the ethnic conflict literature emphasizes drastic responses that minorities have to grievances such as violence, boundary reconfiguration, and assimilation, it overlooks critical moderate responses like out-migration and political mobilization. For example, a highly regarded taxonomy of methods to regulate ethnic conflict consists of four ways to eliminate differences—genocide, forced mass-population transfers, partition and/or secession, integration and/or assimilation—and four ways to manage differences—hegemonic control, arbitration, federalism, and consociationalism. Yet tense Russian-titular relations have failed to generate any of these extreme outcomes. Instead, there is a real but relatively narrow range of variation within generally moderate Russian responses to post-communist challenges that includes different levels of out-migration and political mobilization.

Frustrated minorities do adopt less confrontational measures to redress grievances. The puzzle of Russian minority politics concerns moderate responses, such as "exit" or voluntary out-migration and "voice" or political mobilization, to what Russians perceive as highly dissatisfying circumstances. The existence of widespread grievances among Russians in post-Soviet states regarding their political, economic, and cultural status vis-à-vis the relevant titular nation indicates that the status quo is being challenged. That challenge, however, manifests itself in ways that are apparent only when we explore temperate strategies such as out-migration and political mobilization. And there is significant variation in terms of the degree to which Russians in these states exercise these options: while the level of Russian exit from Kyrgyzstan is higher than it is from Latvia, the level of Russian voice in Kyrgyzstan is lower than it is in Latvia.

Variation in Levels of Exit and Voice

Possible hypotheses regarding this variation include arguments about level of development, inclusive versus exclusive institutions, and regime type. Explanations found in the comparative political economy literature suggest that variation in levels of exit corresponds to variation in levels of economic development. Given that Kyrgyzstan is far less developed than Latvia, these arguments would predict a higher level of Russian exit from the Central Asian state than from the Baltic state. Although this is in fact the case, the effect of informal institutions must be taken into account in order to comprehend precisely how economics play out. The Kyrgyz and Latvian cases suggest the following: (1) both formal and informal institutions determine access to the economy; (2) degree of access to the public and private sectors of an economy influences perceptions of prospects; and (3) when minority access to the public sector is denied, level of economic development is critical because the more developed a private sector is, the more likely a minority with access to it will consider commercial activity a viable alternative to a battle with the core nation for influence in the political arena.

Institutional explanations are inclined to focus on formal rather than informal institutions. Arguments in this literature claim, for example, that inclusive institutions facilitate political participation while exclusionary institutions foster alienation from the political system. Given that minority policies implemented in Kyrgyzstan are inclusive while those implemented in Latvia are exclusive, these arguments would predict a higher level of Russian voice in Kyrgyzstan than in Latvia. The fact that Russians in the Baltic states are far more politically active than their counterparts in the Central Asian states indicates that something other than formal institutions impacts Russian voice in the post-Soviet region.

Regime type explanations also address variation in levels of exit and voice. Regime type might affect exit in the sense that all else being equal, rational, self-interested individuals will choose to migrate from an authoritarian state rather than a democratic state. And this is the case here: the level of Russian exit from the more authoritarian state, Kyrgyzstan, is higher than it is from Latvia. Data presented in Chapter 6, however, show that regime type is not a motivation for migration from either state. Furthermore, in the course of interviews I conducted with representatives from six organizations working on behalf of Russians in Kyrgyzstan and ten working on behalf of Russians in Latvia, regime type did not arise as a factor contributing to exit. Another regime type hypothesis is that levels of voice are higher in democracies than in non-democracies because people are afraid to demonstrate in authoritarian societies. Yet the "Tulip Revolution" that occurred in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and the antigovernment protests that broke out in Burma in 2007 render this hypothesis questionable. In both cases people took to the streets despite the fact that they confronted fairly authoritarian governments.

The story this book tells is much more interesting than these arguments suggest. The Kyrgyz and Latvian cases illustrate that the absence or presence of strong informal networks explains variation in levels of exit and voice among Russians in post-Soviet states: connectedness to or isolation from such networks affects Russian access to the public and private sectors of the economy. That access (or the lack thereof) influences Russian perceptions of socioeconomic prospects, which then drive decisions regarding exit and voice. The conclusion of this analysis—that informal institutions are more influential than formal institutions—highlights the need to move beyond a straightforward analysis of formal politics. In some cases, informal politics matter most.

The Significance of Informal Networks

Every Russian minority population in the post-Soviet region confronts a particular opportunity structure, or set of institutions that governs power relations between ethnic groups. In the process of governing such relationships, these institutions generate perceptions of socioeconomic prospects that then determine choices made by members of the minority in question. Opportunity structures are made up of formal policies that affect citizenship, language, and public sector employment, as well as informal personnel practices that privilege the ethnic majority in the labor market. In some cases, a minority inherits dense informal networks that are based on socially shared unwritten rules designed to resist efforts made by elites to exclude the minority from power. These networks create economic opportunities that would otherwise not exist because of various nationalization efforts, and thus permit alteration of the respective opportunity structure.

Institutions are formal organizations and informal rules and procedures that structure behavior and therefore enable or privilege some actors and constrain or disadvantage other actors. But formal institutions differ from informal institutions. The former are "rules and procedures that are created, communicated, and enforced through channels widely accepted as official," while the latter are "socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels." Legislatures, political parties, ministries, courts, bureaucracies, and labor unions are examples of formal institutions. Constitutions, laws, and policies fall into the same category because they flow through officially sanctioned channels. Clientelism, patrimonialism, clan-based norms, and corruption are examples of informal institutions. Personnel practices that favor one group and in the process undermine the mobility of other groups are also informal institutions because they are b...

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