The Nationalists Are Coming

Over the weekend, Bolotnaia Square hosted the latest gathering of ‘Khvatit kormit’ Kavkaz!’ (Enough feeding the Caucasus!), a Russian nationalist movement that first emerged last April. Saturday’s rally was attended by none other than Aleksei Navalny, who also took the stage and delivered a short speech. Navalny was visibly disappointed with the attendance, which was reportedly somewhere between three- and six-hundred people. This event came just two days after the public learned that Navalny would be joining the organizational committee of another nationalist organization, the ‘Russian March,’ which takes place annually on Unity Day in November. (The photograph above was taken by yours truly, at the site of the 2008 ‘Russian March.’) Olesia Gerasimenko broke the ‘Russian March’ story on in an article highlighting how awkward and embarrassing Navalny’s nationalism is becoming for supporters of his anti-corruption work.

Navalny, for his part, reposted the Gerasimenko piece on his own LiveJournal blog. In subsequent posts, and in a forty-minute debate with journalist Roman Dobrokhotov on Ekho Moskvy before Saturday’s rally, Navalny has reaffirmed his commitment to nationalism, going so far as to link it inextricably with his more widely respected anti-corruption activism. The Caucasus and the federal subsidies that sustain it, he argues, are the epitome of corruption. Therefore, the ‘Khvatit’ campaign should not be viewed as a sideshow to projects like RosPil and RosYama — it should be seen as an equally dedicated attack on Kremlin corruption.

Он объявляет свой город Безъядерной зоной?

Vladimir Milov — another popular oppositionist who has advocated merging liberalism and nationalism — has also publicly supported the ‘Khvatit’ rallies. Last April, when the campaign started, Milov authored an op-ed in repeating the many familiar talking points that nationalists have recycled for years. This included: the exodus of ethnic Russians from the Caucasus following the breakup of the USSR (decreasing their presence from 15% to 4% of the population, by Milov’s calculations); the de facto absence of the rule of Russian law and constitutional order on Caucasian soil today; and the argument that “subsidies will not solve the region’s problems.” Taking up the budgetary spin of the Khvatit rallies, Milov explains that ending subsidies to the Caucasus “is not at all xenophobia, but purely motivated by economic reasons.”

On her Saturday radio program, Yulia Latynina addressed the Khvatit campaign, specifically targeting the costs and benefits of Navalny’s escalated presence in nationalist activism. She perfectly encapsulates the confusion that I think many people experience when confronted by this movement:

When Navalny says ‘Enough feeding the Caucasus!’ I wonder, ‘But what exactly do we do with the Caucasus?’ I mean … do we just cut it off? Where would we actually draw the line?

Also this weekend, economist Sergei Aleksashenko wrote an open letter to both Navalny and Milov, criticizing them for focusing on the consequences of corruption (an unstable Caucasus) rather than the underlying cause (the Kremlin). “Just maybe the issue isn’t the Caucasus?” he asked rhetorically. Two days later, Milov posted a long response that included ad hominem attacks on Aleksashenko for past political flip-flopping, and stories from his travels across Russia, where Milov claims to have come to know an electorate that’s fed up with how liberals “shy from the nationality question.” Nationalism, Milov says, “can be a creative force” and “the battle is coming” to harness that creative energy. Aleksashenko responded hours later, and Milov responded yet again immediately thereafter. By now, Godwin’s Law has reared its head, as well as a debate about the merits of the American ‘melting pot’ version of patriotism. (I guess they’ve yet to hear about the ‘salad bowl‘?)

Nationalism: it’s confusing.

The battle for strangest metaphor also rages on. Aleksashenko compared nationalism to a “bucket of shit” and the Khvatit rallies to a “bag of yeast” (because they threaten to spill over and make a mess) and Milov likened nationalism to nuclear weapons (because it is potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, but is capable of checking aggression if wielded responsibly).

That said, the Milov-Aleksashenko and Navalny-Dobrokhotov debates ultimately come down to the same concerns that Latynina raised above. What ‘positive’ policy implications are we to take from all this? What is the expected outcome of ceasing or drastically reducing federal subsidies to the North Caucasus? The logical conclusion would be that such a change could result in the secession or ejection of the Caucasus from the Russian Federation. It’s not clear, however, that questioning Navalny or Milov for a hundred years would ever extract a clear admission that this is the goal.

To evade the issue of territorial breakdown, Milov has tried to ‘accent the positive’ by introducing a pro-Europe spin to ‘liberal nationalism.’ Russians must counterbalance the creeping “asiaticness” and “eurasianness” of the Putin years with a “Europeanness” that embraces the West, he believes. The goal, Milov says, is to reverse the old mentality of ‘the West is bad and Asia and the Caucasus are good.’ He and Navalny have both employed the ‘de facto’ dodge when responding to the territorial integrity question, insinuating that losing the Caucasian republics would only codify what is already a political reality. Navalny said in his Saturday debate:

I support the return of the Caucasian territory, which currently lies outside the legal realm of Russia. I support them [Caucasians?] finally becoming subjects of the Russian Federation, which includes budgetary equality.

In this way, Navalny and Milov claim two contradictory aims: (a) supporting Russia’s current boundaries in principle, and (b) advocating financial reforms that could very possibly disrupt the Federation’s current composition. For these two goals not to conflict, there would have to be a way of arguing that cutting federal support could somehow bring the Caucasus back into the fold. In all his debates and expositions, I could only find one instance where Navalny even vaguely offers a rationale to explain how less support could improve the situation between Russia and the Caucasus:

We want to spark a discussion inside the Caucasus, among the Caucasian elite, and inside the local population.

Other than this brief suggestion that the Khvatit campaign might ‘spark a discussion,’ there are no other ‘real’ expectations or implications in the speeches and prose of Milov and Navalny. The rest is an opera of ‘budgetary equality,’ accompanied by a chorus of statistics, showing how the Caucasus collects few taxes but receives enormous revenues. In other words, ‘Khvatit’ seems to be another in that endless series of oppositionist protests built around moral indignation, with perhaps one too few feet on the ground. If the protesters denounce their critics as ‘cowards’ who run from the nationality question, what does it mean that they are just as unwilling to address the potentially disastrous consequences of ‘cutting off’ the Federation’s least popular peripheries?

In a report earlier today, Kommersant reporter Ol’ga Allenova talked to activists in the Far East, demonstrating that the Khvatit campaign is a two-way street. As it turns out, ethnic Russian nationalism and attacks on the North Caucasus’ leadership are far less popular in Siberia. In fact, ‘budgetary grievances’ target Moscow and Saint Petersburg more than any of the money pits in and around Chechnya. “Khvatit kormit’ Moskvu!” (Enough feeding Moscow!) and “Khvatit platit’ dan’ Moskve!” (Enough paying tribute to Moscow!) are far timelier slogans for the locals, where as much as 84% of Russia’s oil and gas deposits are located. In Novosibirsk, ethnic Russian nationalist activists like Rostislav Antonov have to moonlight as advocates of regional financial independence, just to stay relevant in an area where nationalism is soured by frustrations with Moscow’s administrative dominance.

Viktor Avsent’ev, Director of the Institute of Socio-Political and Humanities Studies, believes that rising levels of corruption and an increasingly criminal instability have made it impossible for the state to act as a protector of either Russians or non-Russians. In this situation, groups seek out alternative means of safety, which inevitably promotes regionalism and inter-regional frictions.

Where are all the Ekho Moskvy groupies?

This, it seems to me, is where the Khvatit campaign would lead, if it ever managed to achieve mass appeal. Supporters like Navalny and Milov like to think of themselves as spokesmen for all taxpayers, if not for their entire race. These men stand on soapboxes built from righteous indignation that they assume will unite Russia’s downtrodden majority. When Navalny spoke at Bolotnaia this weekend, he told the crowd that they “are the majority.” He repeated it enough to make me question his certainty.

In a sense, though, Navalny is absolutely right. The nationalists are the majority, but not because of any common blood or shared vision for government. They are the majority because they’re like everyone else in Russia: self-centered and panicked about the country’s future. In the grand vanguard fashion, Moscow’s nationalists read a universality into their campaign that crumbles into farce, the farther one ventures from the capital.


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  2. Yes, I saw Milov with that stuff, and I figure nationalism of this sort is all they have to offer to appeal to voters as a rival of Putin and his brand of nationalism.

    Of course, it has to be said that the Kremlin’s “rule of law” in the Caucasus in the last decades has been responsible for numerous massacres and hardly is a model, whatever the corruption.

    So what’s the story, then, was it a paid-for actor or really Navalny with the Nazism?

    Anyway, a colleague of mine and I were just saying the other day, Russia needs a national idea. These things happen because there isn’t a national idea.

    Um, is Russia a gorgeous mosaic?

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