“Russian World” Concept and Securitization of Collective Identity

Givi Gigitashvili is an intern at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs

The annexation of Crimea under the pretext of “Russian world” has sparked discussions about the looming nature of this concept. Initially, in philosophical text of founding fathers of this concept, “Russian world” exemplified the trans-ethnic and linguistic space for all ethnic Russians, Russian speakers and those, who stay loyal to Russian state. Nevertheless, amid Russia’s incursion into Ukraine under the veneer of “Russian world”, identity discourse came into play and converged with the Kremlin’s assertive foreign policy. Consequently, “Russian world” concept was exposed as a source of insecurity for countries with large Russian minorities that heightened concerns about recurrence of same hybrid warfare scenario in the Baltic states. However, oftentimes these fears were overstated by different commentators. This work gives an account of changing nature of “Russian world” on the eve of Crimea crisis and it has been organized in the following way: first part sets out to draw the boundaries of “Russian World” and shed some light on the main tenets of it. The ensuing section examines the securitization of collective identity and instrumental use of “Russian World” concept by the Kremlin. The last part discusses the diminished zeal of Russian minority in Latvia to identify themselves with “Russian world” community in the light of changing socio-cultural identity.

Mapping the “Russian world”

It is worth emphasizing that ill-defined boundaries of “Russian world” are quite enabling for current regime in Russia: it can attach different connotations to this concept for the sake of more effective use in foreign policy repertoire. However, during the last two decades, a number of authors observed the changing meanings of “Russian World” with an aim to unpack this concept in a more consistent way.

To begin with, the founding fathers of this concept, Shchedrovitsky and Ostrovsky, described “Russian World” in 1997 “as a peaceful reestablishment of Russia’s identity and its reconnection with its past and its diasporas, therein one of the brightest parts of Russian identity and intellectual production has been shaped.”[1]According to Feklyunina, “Russian world” was imagined as a naturally existing civilisational community, markers of which were Russian language, Orthodox Christianity and Russian culture more broadly.[2] Thus, after the demise of Soviet Union, “Russian world” meta-project emerged as a domain primarily discussed by philosophers and scientists, whereas two alternative concepts, which I will review briefly below, were immediately incorporated in political repertoire in post-Soviet Russia. Interestingly, not only ethnic Russians can be considered as part of “Russian World”, but also it transcends the borders of Russian federation and therefore it represents the trans-ethnic community, part of which can be Ukrainians, Jews etc. Secondly, the constructed identity of the “Russian world” drew on a particular interpretation of the “common” past.[3] Celebration of the victory in the Great Patriotic War as a common achievement of Soviet people can serve here as the best illustration. Thirdly, Feklyunina notes that “Russian world” is a hierarchical relationship between Russia and other members of the community. As she reveals, “Russian World” is Russian-centric, discursively constructed collective identity, pressed upon audiences that are reckoned to be part of this community by Moscow. Against this background, this concept signifies one of the principal pillars of Moscow’s public diplomacy.[4]

In Marlene Laruelle’s account, the lynchpin of “Russian World” concept is the perception of Russia as a divided nation. After the collapse of the USSR, national borders of new independent countries partitioned the Russian nation, insofar as considerable part of Russian people stayed in the former Soviet states.[5] Hence, Russia’s new state borders (territorial body) and national borders (cultural body) do not match, given that Russian people are dispersed outside of Russia. The annexation of Crimea gave credence to Zevelev’s claim that Russian political elite considers this gap as historical injustice and a key threat to Russia’s security.[6]

“Russian World” as an evolving concept

Previously not being tightly intertwined with Russia’s foreign policy, seizure of Crimea marked the emergence of “Russian World” as a perilous phenomenon, thereby Kremlin can vindicate its bellicose acts against rivals. Nevertheless, it should be noted that annexation of Crimea was not the first occasion when Russia sought to mess up the situation in another country by stressing the need to protect Russian speakers. The crisis in Russian-Latvian relations back in 1998 can serve as one of many examples.[7] Two other concepts that appeared in political discourse after collapse of USSR were “compatriots abroad” and “Karaganov’s doctrine”. Igor Zevelev highlights the key difference between these two concepts – “the notion of “compatriots” rests on legal norms and definitions, while “the Russian world” is more of an idea relating to people’s self-identification.”[8]  As for “Karaganov doctrine”, in one of his speeches, Sergey Karaganov explicitly articulated that Russia should have kept Russian-speakers in post-Soviet countries, where they lived after the collapse of USSR, as strings of influence with a further perspective.[9] Thus, back in 90s, “compatriots abroad” and “Karaganov doctrine” represented more widely discussed concepts within political discourse than that of “Russian world”. During the first decade after Soviet collapse, the latter was not used explicitly by political leaders in their public diplomacy effort towards Russian speakers, living in post-Soviet countries.

Quite recently, in his famous speech on Crimea, Putin claimed: “Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. Protecting these people is in our national interest.”[10] Furthermore, on March 7, 2014, in commenting on the situation in Crimea, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said that “Russia is the country that underlies the “Russian World”, and the president of that country is Putin; President of the Russian Federation is a guarantor of security for the “Russian World”.”[11]

What is quite indicative in Putin’s speech – he referred not only ethnic Russians or citizens of Russia living in Ukraine, but also Russian speakers. It overtly proves the growing importance of “Russian World” in the Kremlin’s foreign policy repertoire in the course of the Ukraine crisis. Just for comparison, Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 was pursued under the pretext of defending specifically Russian citizens, not just compatriots (people with Russian origins living abroad, who do not necessarily hold Russian citizenship) or Russian-speakers, but Russian citizens. Significantly, Russian citizens were those Ossetians, who were given Russian passports through deliberate “passportization” policy, pursued in the region by Moscow prior to the war.[12] Two more pretexts for Russia’s intervention were defending CIS peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia and protection of small nation – Ossetians.[13] Thus, as we already know, “Russian World” concept is much broader and on this ground, it did not appear in Russian leadership discourse during the war with Georgia.

Secondly, according to Zevelev, Putin’s statements during Crimea crisis demonstrate Russia’s readiness to “protect its cultural body even beyond its borders and annexation of Crimea marked a shift of the Kremlin’s zone of responsibility to protect people from the nation-state level to the level of a community larger than a nation-state.”[14] At what follows, I will analyze securitization of collective Russian world identity through the prism of securitization theory.

According to Copenhagen School of security studies, what is most important is not security issues in themselves, but rather issues that have been “securitized”, i.e. discursively constructed as a threat. In case the securitizing actors succeed in mobilizing people against the referent object/threat, they allege a necessity of and a mandate to tackle with this threat by extraordinary measures. Security action consists of three elements: (1) the speech act; (2) the securitizing actor and (3) the audience.[15] In his Crimea speech, Putin proclaimed that Russians and Russian-speaking people were put in under danger in Ukraine. Furthermore, with his speech, Peskov strived to obtain legitimacy to apply exceptional measures with an aim to “protect Russian speakers” that resulted in the annexation of Crimea. Thus, Russian officials emerged out as the securitizing actors. Concerning the audience, these narratives were envisioned to gain domestic approval first and in the meantime, to validate Moscow’s actions in the eyes of wider international audience.

Securitization theory also suggests that inasmuch as threats are socially constructed, sometimes they do not genuinely exist that disallows us to measure of evaluate the degree of their presence. After the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s relative idleness to “protect” Russian-speaking people in Eastern Ukrainian regions revealed that allegations about imperiled Russian speakers in Ukraine were ill-founded and mostly invented. Put differently, if seizure of Crimea was galvanized by inevitable necessity to protect Russian speakers in the region, it seems odd that the Kremlin abstained from annexing Eastern Ukrainian regions as well in a sense that it must have been the reasonable step, if protecting of Russian speakers was really the case in point. This line of thinking gives credence to the Laruelle’s claim that “Russian World” concept was used instrumentally, in order to legitimize annexation of Crimea, while the genuine driving force of Moscow’s actions was to punish Ukraine.Thus, instrumental use of “Russian World” concept implies the deployment of this concept against countries that embark on unfavourable activities in Moscow’s line of reasoning.[16] However, “Russian World” itself can hardly become the driver of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, but it can serve as a justification of its aggression.

Is Russian minority in Latvia still receptive to “Russian world” collective identity?

Despite Moscow’s effort to project “Russian World” collective identity in post-Soviet countries, it is worth to note that target audiences –in most cases, Russian speakers and Russian ethnic minorities in post-Soviet countries – are not unavoidably receptive to this identity. Although Russian-speaking community in Latvia keeps on embracing the key markers of this concept, self-identification as part of this supranational community is more crucial. Allegedly, Russian minority in Latvia and in particular young people born in independent country, are subjected to palpable socio-cultural transformation that ostensibly diminishes their enthusiasm to associate themselves with “Russian World”. Undeniably, pace of socio-cultural transformation is largely determined by the degree of their integration into Latvian society, adoption of European values, improvement of their economic situation etc.

The recent study, conducted by the National Defence Academy of Latvia, reveals quite indicative figures in this regard. To begin with, number of Russian speakers without Latvian citizenship, who support Russian narratives is higher than those with Latvian citizenship.[17]  Secondly, study asserts that people who have stable work and an income are less likely to protest, take part in demonstrations and against this backdrop, the vast majority of Russian speakers believe that the best way to improve Latvia’s security is the improvement of people’s welfare. Thirdly, 35% of Russian speakers living in Latgale region believe that possibilities to find a job are better in Russia than in Latvia (versus  7% of them who think they are better in Latvia), as well as 28% claim that possibilities for receiving social guarantees are better in Russia versus 6 % – that they are better in Latvia.[18]  In my view, these trends clearly illustrate that better integration of Russia’s speakers into Latvian society coupled with improving the welfare in the country can enhance the unity of Latvian society and eradicate long-lasting dividing lines.

After Latvia regained independence, Russian minority managed to maintain a socio-cultural infrastructure, such as entrepreneurship, educational and cultural centers, media outlets on the basis of their mother tongue.[19] It ensured preservation of Russian language in social life and language remained the main factor of ethnic identity and uniting bond for this people. Thus, by preserving the social functions of the Russian language, Russians maintained their linguistic, collective identity in Latvia. Secondly, their cultural infrastructure (theaters, media, different organizations) in Latvia promotes Russian culture and it can therefore be assumed that Russian minority still adheres to Russia’s culture and history. Thirdly, Russian minority and other orthodox minorities (Belarusians, Ukrainians) belong to parishes of Latvian Orthodox Church, which represents the semi-autonomous part of Russian Orthodox Church. It is well-known fact that the latter is the leading force of consolidating “Russian World” and compatriots abroad. Nevertheless, Kudors notes that “Russian Orthodox Church and the Latvian Orthodox Church are characterized by the different levels of involvement in the Russian compatriot policy: If the Russian Orthodox Church sees its special mission in establishment of the Russian World then the Latvian Orthodox Church treats the Russian compatriot policy with reluctance and carefulness.”[20] He adds that Latvian Orthodox Church renounces to conduct interaction with Latvian public authorities in confrontational mode, and therefore swears off being proactive supporter of participation in Russia’s compatriot policy.[21]

Notwithstanding of all-abovementioned, one should not overestimate the eagerness of Russian minority in Latvia to unequivocally accept the claim of belonging to the “Russian World”, again due to their changing socio-cultural identity. By way of illustration, let me draw your attention to some of the trends, which augmented this transformation.

In the eve of Soviet collapse, a number of Russian minority joined the Baltic Way, the human chain across the Baltic states, demanding independence for the Baltic states followed by voting for independence of Latvia on the 3 March 1991 referendum. It clearly shows that metamorphosis in the minds of Russian speakers started already back in 90s. Secondly, it could be argued that Latvia’s accession to the EU gave a significant boost to profound transformation of socio-cultural identity of Russians minority. As Novikova puts it, “access to the EU was perceived as a potential and positive re-identificatory space for a new Euro-Russian identity and the possible resolution of a number of issues around their political status.”[22] Along similar lines, Simonian notes that “Young Russians in the Baltic states differ from their Russian peers: they are efficient, practical, and industrious. Many of them have successfully mastered trade, banking, and financial operations and have established business contacts in the West. Here they are referred to as “Euro-Russians”, a new ethnic subgroup.”[23]

Indeed, Latvia’s accession to the EU had a positive impact on the integration of Russian minority. By virtue of free mobility of people, young Russians from Latvia study in many European universities; additionally, they have become more mobile toward the West rather than East and embraced European lifestyle, fashion, values etc. To some extent, it leads to an alienation from Russian value set and worldview. Last but not least, Tishkov notes that “young Russians in Baltic states do their national military service as part of NATO’s forces that would disenchant the authors of the “Russia world” project to consider them as part of this sphere.”[24]

However, as the above-mentioned study demonstrates, Russian minority in Latvia is not homogenous. First cleavage can be noticed between unemployed and employed people within Russian minority. The formers are more dissatisfied with what Latvian government does for their welfare and therefore, they tend to represent more vulnerable segment to Russia’s propaganda. Also, there is an explicit disjunction between views, held by citizens and non-citizens, young people and elders, who were born during Soviet Union. Finally, yet importantly, Russian minority concentrated in Southeastern part of Latvia expose different views over a number of issues, compared to Russian minority living in Riga and other cities.

  Overall, this particular study by the Defence Academy offers quite upbeat outlook and concludes that potential intention of Russian state to cause mass protests and unrest in Latvia seems to be doomed to failure, because such provocations can hardly gain large-scale, active support from Russian minority.[25] To some extent, it lends support to my argument that “Russian world” concept can hardly be used by Moscow in Latvia to incite conflict within society. Nevertheless, the state still needs to lambast further the Kremlin’s effort to project “Russian World” identity and ensure fully-fledged admission of Russian minority into the Latvian civil society. On logical grounds, growing presence of Russian minority in local politics will make them less receptive to “Russian World” identity and more aversive of being perceived as the subjects of Russian protectionism.

[1] Laruelle M. 2015. The “Russian World”, Russia’s soft power and geopolitical imagination. Center on global interests.  Available at: http://globalinterests.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/FINAL-CGI_Russian-World_Marlene-Laruelle.pdf  Accessed: 25.05.2016

[2] Feklyunina V. 2015. Soft power and identity: Russia, Ukraine and the ‘Russian world(s)’European Journal of international relations. Available at: http://ejt.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/23/1354066115601200.abstract  Accessed: 21.05.2016

[3] Feklyunina V. 2015. Soft power and identity: Russia, Ukraine and the ‘Russian world(s)’European Journal of international relations. Available at: http://ejt.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/23/1354066115601200.abstract  Accessed: 21.05.2016

[4] Ibid.

[5] Laruelle M. 2015. Russia as a “divided nation”, from compatriots to Crimea: a contribution to the discussion on nationalism and foreign policy, problems of Post-Communism 62:2, 88-97. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10758216.2015.1010902#.V1lm2_l97IU Accessed: 25.05.2016

[6] Zevelev I. 2014. Russia’s national identity transformation and the new foreign policy doctrine. Russia in global affairs. Available at: http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-Russian-World-Boundaries-16707 Accessed: 20.05.2016

[7] Stranga A. The end product of crisis in Latvian-Russian relations (March-August 1998).available at: http://www.nato.int/acad/fellow/96-98/stranga.pdf Accessed: 10.09.2016

[8] Zevelev I. 2014. Russia’s national identity transformation and the new foreign policy doctrine. Russia in global affairs. Available at: http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-Russian-World-Boundaries-16707 Accessed: 20.05.2016

[9] Karaganov Doctrine. Latvian History. March 2012. Available at: https://latvianhistory.com/tag/karaganov-doctrine/  Accessed: 11.09.2015

[10] President of Russia. 2014. Address by president of the Russian federation. March 18. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603 accessed: 03.06.2016

[11]Euronews. 2014. Ukraine as it happened: Crimean referendum widens US-Russia split. April 7. Available at: http://www.euronews.com/2014/03/07/live-updates-efforts-to-de-escalate-tension-in-ukraine-meet-with-no-/  Accessed: 03.06.2016

[12] Law Library of congress. Russian federation: legal aspects of war in Georgia. Available at: https://www.loc.gov/law/help/legal-aspects-of-war/russian-georgia-war.php accessed: 10.09.2016

[13] Ibid.

[14]Zevelev I. 2014. Russia’s national identity transformation and the new foreign policy doctrine. Russia in global affairs. Available at: http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-Russian-World-Boundaries-16707 Accessed: 20.05.2016

[15]Bigo, D. 2002. Security and immigration: toward a critique of the governmentality of unease.  Alternatives: global, local, political. Available at:http://alt.sagepub.com/content/27/1_suppl/63.extract Accessed: 01.03.2016.

[16]Laruelle M. 2015. Russia as a “divided nation”, from compatriots to Crimea: a contribution to the discussion on nationalism and foreign policy, problems of Post-Communism 62:2, 88-97. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10758216.2015.1010902#.V1lm2_l97IU Accessed: 25.05.2016

[17] Berzina L. and others.  2016. The possibility of societal destabilization in Latvia: Potential national security threats. Center for security and strategic research.  Available at: http://www.naa.mil.lv/~/media/NAA/AZPC/Publikacijas/WP%2004-2016-eng.ashx accessed: 11.09.2016

[18] Ibid.

[19]Volkov V. 2008. The “Russian community” as a means of self-identification of Russians in Latvia.  Available at: http://www.ies.ee/iesp/No6/articles/iesp_no6_pp104-123.pdf Accessed: 01.06.2016

[20]Kudors A. 2010. Orthodoxy and politics in Latvia. Available from: http://appc.lv/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Orthodoxy-and-politics-in-Latvia.pdf Accessed 01.06.2016

[21] Ibid

[22]Novikova I. 2008. The image of Russia in the “new abroad”: the Russian-Speaking along the Baltics. Available at: http://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/coe21/publish/no17_ses/16novikova.pdf Accessed: 01.06.2015

[23] Simonian R. 2004. The Russian diaspora in the Baltic countries. Russian politics and law. volume 42. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10611940.2004.11066925?journalCode=mrup20 Accessed: 01.06.2015.

[24]Tishkov V. 2008. The Russian World-changing meanings and strategies. Russia and Eurasia program, Carnegie papers. Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/the_russian_world.pdf Accessed: 25.05.2016.

[25] Berzina L. and others.  2016. The possibility of societal destabilization in Latvia: Potential national security threats. Center for security and strategic research.  Available at: http://www.naa.mil.lv/~/media/NAA/AZPC/Publikacijas/WP%2004-2016-eng.ashx accessed: 11.09.2016

Published 30 September 2016

Author Givi Gigitashvili