MINELRES: Fwd: Regis Gente on post-Soviet minorities

minelres@lists.microlink.lv minelres@lists.microlink.lv
Mon Jun 6 17:16:33 2005

Original sender: Emil Adelkhanov <emil-ade@cipdd.org>

From: Regis Gente <regisgente@hotmail.com>

Chers tous,

un papier qui doit paraitre bientot dans le Moscow Times...

Bonne lecture, Regis

By protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, paradoxically, are their
political, social and economical recognition problems worsened? In this
way, are the evil’s roots of ethnic segregation kept alive ? There is
nothing provocative in this question, the goal of which is only to
reflect on the way that these minorities could integrate in full respect
of human rights. But, is it possible to do differently? Would it be
dangerous to do so?

Governments, minority representatives, foreign N.G.Os or diplomats
should pose the question especially in the case of former Soviet Union
where the issue is particularly delicate. Turmoil occurred in
Uzbekistan, caused by the publication of an Ethnic Atlas of Uzbekistan
in 2002 by the Tashkent Open Society Institute (Soros foundation). These
questions form today the subject of a passionate debate. The
Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie (Ethnographic Review), published by the
Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of
Sciences, has its first issue of the year dedicated to the Uzbek
identity problem. From this publication stems two debates as presented

"It is interesting to note that this debate, which agitated only Uzbek
scientific circles till now, is affecting Russia, remarks Marlene
Laruelle, researcher at the Ifeac (French Institute for Central Asia
Studies). The Russian ethnologists are also divided between partisans of
a western approach of ethnography and defenders of the soviet
tradition." Here is the first argument. The Ethnic Atlas of Uzbekistan,
which is in effect a dictionary of nationalities, divided supporters of
an "essentialist" and "evolutionist" ethnology and protagonists of the
western "constructivism". Whereas the former promote the very soviet
approach that ethnic identity is rooted in nature, the latter consider
ethnic groups as modeled by a community self-perception and relations
with others.

Used by their government, the Uzbek essentialists, from the Institute of
History of the Science Academy of Uzbekistan, confronted Alisher
Ilkhamov, director of the local Soros foundation at that time, on his
article "Archaeology of Uzbek Identity". The dispute lead to the closing
of the foundation, in April 2004. It was obviously a pretext to ban an
institution that President Karimov feared after the prominent role it
played in the Georgian Rose Revolution.

Mr. Ilkhamov was much criticized in Uzbekistan because he denied, in his
article, the "natural and objective" character of Uzbek ethnic group
formation, which is the ground of nationalist legitimacy that Islam
Karimov wants to establish. For the first time since the  independence
of the country, someone dared to tackle this new myth which has caused
many violations of minority rights, in particular those of the Tadjiks.

But, as pointed out by Serguei Abashin, senior researcher at Institute
of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, and chief
editor of the Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie, "Alisher’s position is not
completely constructivist. He affirms that the modern Uzbeks, as Karimov
wants to see them, are descendants of tribes also called Uzbeks, which
are not considered as constructed." 

The second argument is raised in the Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie’s pages,
and launched by the French researcher, Boris Petric, from the National
Center for Scientific Research. He blames Mr. Ilkhamov for being trapped
in the essentialist view, but furthermore he conveys a western train of
thought, dominant today in N.G.Os milieu, not so different from the
Bolshevik ethnologists of the 1930’.

In all of this, he foresees a double danger. Firstly, former republics
of the U.S.S.R. are encouraged to model themselves as “ethnic nations”.
Everybody knows that ethnic peace by nature is precarious. “By
perceiving social groups only as ethnic groups”, he says, “we push the
post soviet states to continue to be totally de-politicized and they are
not encouraged to become  states of citizens.” This is exactly the risk
in Uzbekistan, according to Boris Petric, when the entire community is
“more characterized by regional factionalism  than by ethnic alignment.” 

The second danger, for him, is destabilization. We remember Zbigniew
Brezinsky’s words, in the early 1990’s, when the famous American
strategist advised to do to China what was done for the Soviet Union,
throwing against it its ethnic and religious minorities. Divide and

In Alisher Ilkhamov’s opinion, Boris Petric plays into the hands of the
Central asian dictators. "His negation of the existence of ethnic
minorities is very dangerous and might justify and bless violation of
minority rights what already takes place in the post-Soviet Central
Asia", he says. "It is the matter of human rights, the right to claim
and assert one’s own ethnicity.  Of course, such assertion is
essentially the result of certain ethnocentric policy adopted in the
Soviet times. Yes, we’re dealing with certain Soviet legacy here. But
this ethnocentrism could be overcome by only, 1st, citizenship based
nationhood, and 2nd respect of minority rights. As I said I oppose any
minimization and elimination imposed from the above. It would mean
ethnic cleansing, nothing else", he adds.

In the field, acting for the protection of ethnic minority rights is
delicate too. For months, for example, in Samtskhe Javakheti region, in
the South of Georgia where some districts are only inhabited by ethnic
Armenians, ethnic tensions are occurring. A foreigner who is carefully
following these events, speaking on condition of anonymity, thinks that
there is a link between these renewed tensions and the
counter-productive action of international and foreign N.G.Os. "It is
very fashionable nowadays in Georgia to propose new programs in
Javakheti", he explains. "Nobody will tell you directly, but it is
obviously designed to assist Armenians. The Georgian part of the area
and the Catholic valleys, as poor as the Armenian villages, are
generally not involved in these programs. I observe that it arouses
jealousies which are deepening the problems. At the end, the minority
save more money than the titular group or than the other minorities."

This specialist of Georgian separatisms denounces what he calls "the
little humanitarian business" which deals with receiving European Union
or United Nations grants in order to "mainly generate a lot of paperwork
and blablabla and finally redistribute very few to the local
populations. Often less than 10%. This micro-economic logic should be
taken into account in order to understand why ethnic minority defense is
so imperative today." It would be much better to use all this money to
strengthen the economic relations among the groups of the multi ethnic

This is a fact, ethnic groups are existing, at least in everybody’s
mind. Post-Soviet leaders, for political reasons certainly, but also
because of their mentality and past, are leading their country on this
basis. It is almost impossible to ask them to suddenly rule differently.
Here is the problem: Is it possible, and must we, minimize or eliminate
the ethnic issue in the post soviet political life? It is of course
almost impossible. But, nevertheless, there is a necessity to question
what is the nature of an ethnic group, in itself, and the role it should
play, or not, in the construction of new states. Past decades showed how
destructive the ethnic issue can be. It is worth the trouble thinking
about the intellectual and practical relevance of the protection of
ethnic groups. It is crucial to do so for their own sake and for the
general interest’s sake.

Regis Gente, correspondent in Georgia for several French speaking medias
Regis Gente Journaliste - Caucase - ex-URSS
Tel. 00 995 32 98 63 08 
Mob. 00 995 99 407 451  
Tel. sat. +88 216 611 30 331 
Email : regisgente@hotmail.com

5 rue Kiril Oukleba 0801 Tbilissi GEORGIE 
3 rue Irenee Theveny 10000 Troyes

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