Moscow urged to revive propiska system – and warned against doing so
Archived Articles 08 Sep 2006 Paul GobleEWR
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VIENNA – A week after violence erupted in the Karelian city of Kondopoga, Russian commentators are beginning to move on from the eternal Russian inquiry – “Who is guilty? – to a second and perhaps even more difficult question – “What should be done?”
And just as the answers to the first varied from the Chechens to Russian nationalists to outside agitators and from socio-economic problems to political neglect, so too the number of proposed “solutions” to Kondopoga-type conflicts has ranged broadly as well.
While many are not unexpected, some are disturbing, and a few, including a proposal to reintroduce the Soviet system of residence permits (“propiski”), have already drawn fire as being dangerously counterproductive, with one senior analyst arguing that a return to that system could lead to the disintegration of the country.
In an essay posted online this week, Sergei Mikheyev, the deputy general director of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, argues that Kondopoga proves that “it is time” to return to the propiska system, warning that if Moscow does not do so, it will face still more problems ahead (
The influx of migrants into the Russian Federation has become an uncontrollable flood, he suggests, and the current campaign against “Russian fascism” has given them a plausible reason to view indigenous Russians as the problem and themselves as invariably the victims.

Moreover, the threat of the nominally pro-Moscow leadership in Chechnya to “intervene” on behalf of Chechens involved in conflicts elsewhere raises the question whether Moscow has not already paid “too high a price … for stability in that North Caucasus republic.”
The Kremlin’s response to the Kondopoga events, Mikheyev continues, has been “to minimize the problems, to give the impression that everything is normal, and to blame skinheads and a politically unsophisticated population for all the problems.” In short, the country’s leadership is telling Russians “don’t believe your own eyes;” believe us.
But that is clearly an increasingly insufficient approach, the Moscow analyst says. And he argues that it is high time to think about re introducing what he called “a sufficiently reliable method” for controlling the situation: the propiska system of Soviet times when officials decided who could live where.
Human rights activists have always spoken out against that, Mikheyev notes, just as they have “typically rejected” everything connected with the Soviet past.  But there is one Soviet-era idea that these opponents of doing something serious about the problems of migration continue to believe in: “the friendship of the peoples.”
“But to those who are well-informed,” he insists, “it is quite well know that there was no particular friendship of the peoples in the USSR.” Using the propiska system, he argued, Moscow was able to ensure that “the majority of the population” lived in “mono-ethnic regions.”
The Soviet government did try to promote this idea, he writes, but it failed, as the collapse of the USSR demonstrated. Indeed, he suggests that only during World War II under Stalin was there the unity and “friendship of the peoples” that human rights activists imagine – and even then it was less than total.
Now, the situation is more serious, Mikheyev says. “The resources of the Soviet and Russian government are not to be compared. And consequently, it is not clear why bureaucrats now think that they will be able to do what the Soviet regime (and no other one in the world either) failed to do.”
Indeed, he argues, “the current idea of 'Russianness' [the non ethnic ‘Rossianstvo’] is the very same ‘Soviet internationalism’ and ‘single Soviet people’ which also remained a propaganda myth because it ignored living reality.”
And consequently, the gradual reintroduction of the propiska system “turns out to be not only useful but the single possible measure for the locationalization of inter-ethnic problems.” Kondopoga will not be “the last link in this chain,” Mikheyev writes. “It is only the beginning.” And officials must recognize that and act.
But regrettably, he concludes, “the current regime overrates its level of control over the situation in this question,” as the events in Kondopoga demonstrated. Indeed, he ended with the observation that “the Kremlin puts too much faith in Putin’s ratings” as a kind of magical solution in which all problems can be dissolved.
But another Moscow specialist, one who has tracked ethnic affairs in the Russian Federation and the former Soviet space for many years, argues that the re-introduction of the propiska system will contribute to the further ethnicizing of life in Russia and threaten the country’s future.
And that development, one that would further politicize something that should be depoliticized, Sergei Markedonov of the Moscow Institute of Political and Military Analysis argues, inevitably would contribute to more conflicts and ever more Kondopogas across the country (
The outbreak of violence in the Karelian city, he suggests, is the product of “a systemic crisis of Russia’s nationality policy,” of the failure of the country’s leadership to understand that their approach to the citizens of the Russian Federation is fundamentally wrong.
Instead of moving away from the Soviet system of officially defined and hierarchically arranged ethnicity, he wrote, Moscow has made ethnicity more important politically by relying on national cultural autonomies rather than building a civil society in which ethnicity is primarily a private matter.
On the one hand, Moscow’s approach has meant that ethnicity has been “privatized” by ethnic leaders who see playing the nationality card as the golden road to greater power for themselves.
And on the other, this approach has had the effect of creating a series of “quasi-states” within the borders of the Russian Federation, a development that by itself promotes both “apartheid and xenophobia.” And that has lead some regions to adopt their own “immigration laws” and thus put themselves at odds with other regions.
Reintroducing a propiska system would only exacerbate that situation, he writes, because Moscow lacks the kind of power the central government had in Soviet times and thus the regions predominantly Russian and non-Russian alike would exploit this new way of building their own power at the expense of others.
And in such a situation, one that the Russian Federation could easily find itself if it continues in the direction that many are now urging, the country would be at risk, and “the presence or absence of ‘the power vertical’ in essence would not influence this situation.”
What is necessary, Markedonov argues, is for the Russian government to assign itself “the task of forming universal rules of the game for bureaucrats and citizens of the country,” something that cannot happen “without a qualitative change in the foundations of [Moscow’s] nationality policy.”
In dealing with the country’s various ethnic groups, he continues, the Kremlin and its agents must base their actions “on the principle of citizenship as the highest and absolute value.” Individuals can and should be proud of their ethnic backgrounds, but they should be helped to view themselves as members of a single “civic nation.”
Given the tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet inheritance, that won’t be something easy to do. But all citizens of the Russian Federation must recognize that “ethnicity cannot integrate a poly-ethnic community into a single whole. On the contrary, that is the path to conflicts and new Kondopogas.”
And with that understanding of the need to form “a civic nation” will also come a recognition that “ethnicity ill not be excluded from the life of each” of its members but that this kind of identity “will occupy only its proper place – as a cultural factor” rather than a political one.
Whether Russia and Russians can make that transition remains a very open question, Markedonov suggests, but like so many who have discussed Kondopoga and other similar conflicts, he concludes as do his opponents that, except for a disastrous “disintegration of the country,” there really is no other way.   
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