Opening remarks at a meeting of the State Council Presidium on strengthening interethnic harmony in Russian society
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon,
Today’s presidium is meeting to discuss measures to strengthen interethnic harmony in our country. I think you all understand the reasons for deciding to examine this particular issue. This is a sign that not everything is in order in our country in this area.
I want to warn from the outset about over-dramatising the situation. We should not exaggerate the threat that exists, but at the same time, we must be completely ready to guarantee that interethnic peace and interfaith harmony remain real achievements throughout our country’s entire history.
I will start by outlining a few priority tasks.
First, it is obvious that work on interethnic harmony and communication between cultures should begin in our schools and universities for it is there that people’s world outlook is formed. The world outlook that people develop within the education system determines the way they relate to the surrounding world, the compatibility of their views with those of others, their ability to listen to others, respect others’ customs, and abide by the rules of present-day life.
”Work on interethnic harmony and communication between cultures should begin in our schools and universities for it is there that people’s world outlook is formed.“
In December, I issued the instruction to examine the quality of civic education in our education system. We need to take a close look at textbooks’ content and at teaching methods, including in the humanities, or rather, above all in the humanities, and also the different forms that public work with schoolchildren and students takes. Without question, we also should introduce new practices designed to cultivate a spirit of tolerance and humanist respect for each other.
Another issue concerns the teachers and students themselves and applies to the entire education system. There are people who are completely unfit to teach others, on a professional basis, at any rate. In particular, they include people known to have been involved in inciting interethnic hostility, and all the more so those who have been convicted in court of inciting interethnic hostility. These people should not have any part in educating our children and young people. The law should directly prohibit their employment in this sector, and I will soon submit the relevant draft law to the Federal Assembly.
Second, we need to optimise the state grant allocation system, including the state grants allocated by the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media. We must do more to encourage the creation of media products aimed at consolidating interethnic and interfaith harmony. We saw a few short films on this subject in the foyer just before, and they are not bad, but it is important not to focus all the attention just on what is made in Moscow and broadcast on the federal channels. All of the regions are to get involved in this work, and I draw the attention of the regional governors present to this issue.
This teaching of tolerance and the ability to live in a complex and diverse society did not develop in other countries overnight, after all. Frankly speaking, the developed countries and democracies themselves did not form overnight. If we look back 50–70 years ago, the situation in many of these countries was worse, say, than in our country today. But they mustered the strength to rally together and vanquish interethnic and interfaith strife, and build a society ready to grow and develop, a society of people willing to listen to each other and live in peace with each other.
Our next priority is to expand cultural exchange between our country’s different regions. Art exhibitions, tours by various groups and performers, excursions, and other cultural events are all very important for developing mutual understanding between peoples. This stems from the simple truth that people need to be together and listening to each other. All of this is happening, but we should put more conscious thought into it, because too often it happens that the best examples of our country’s culture are much better known abroad than at home, at least in some parts of our country.
Just think, when did renowned groups like the Bolshoi Theatre, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Moiseyev Ensemble, or any of our big national groups, on which the state spends considerable money, go on tour to the Caucasus republics? They do not go there at all, and this is not right.
I want to bring this to the attention of the Ministry of Culture, which should revise its policy accordingly. And grants should go to those who help to consolidate our society. Of course there should be tours abroad too, but it is also important to unite and strengthen our own country. These kinds of things can do more to bring our country together than a great many financing programmes that often put money into things where it is not needed. The Ministry of Culture should therefore work together with the regions to draw up a programme for developing interregional cultural ties.
The next task is that all regions without exception should carry out a balanced personnel policy. We all know that in some republics, regions and territories there are tacit restrictions on people of particular ethnic backgrounds taking part in government bodies in these places. This is totally lacking in morals, and I instruct the Government and my envoys to the federal districts to study this issue and present proposals to eradicate this situation, even when it has long since already become a part of the local tradition.
”We all know that in some republics, regions and territories there are tacit restrictions on people of particular ethnic backgrounds taking part in government bodies in these places. This is totally lacking in morals.“
Another important thing is that civil servants today should also have all the necessary knowledge in the area of interethnic relations, and this should be a part of their training. Again, it is completely unacceptable to allow people convicted of crimes of an interethnic or extremist nature to work as civil servants.
Finally, our different faiths also play a very important part in strengthening interethnic harmony. I met recently with the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which discussed this issue. Today, I visited one of the oldest active mosques in Russia and spoke with members of the Muslim clergy. I know the great efforts religious organisations are putting into supporting interethnic peace, because they realise that without it spiritual communication would be impossible and we would find ourselves on a road to nowhere. It is enough to look at the experience of the many countries where interfaith hostility has set blood flowing in an endless stream.
We need to take this work to a new level, and I therefore think it right to set up for the regions working groups composed of representatives of the various religions to settle interethnic conflicts. The members of these working groups should no doubt come from all of our different faiths, even if this or that faith does not perceive any problems amongst its own flock. I ask all of the regional governors to give this initiative their full support. The Presidential Council for Coordination with Religious Organisations could also set up a similar group. This is very practical work after all, and a very important and complex issue.
There is another issue too, which I discussed today while meeting with representatives of the different ethnic communities living in Bashkortostan. Bashkortostan is a republic where we can find members of all the big ethnic groups in Russia, including Russians and Bashkirs, Tatars, members of the Finno-Ugric group of peoples, and other peoples from all corners of our country. There are many fashionable new trends in discussing interethnic relations today. It has become the fashion in Europe to speak of the failure of multiculturalism. People are saying now that this is not a policy that can ensure that different cultures develop in harmony within countries that have a dominant ethnic group, and that it makes no sense to pursue this policy. They say it would be better if all other cultures developed in line with the dominant ethnic group’s traditions and values. I think that, applied to our country, such a view would create far too simplistic a picture, despite the huge part Russian culture has played, and which I spoke about not long ago.
Of course we must respect the traditions that form our country’s foundations. Everyone who comes to live in our country should know our official national language – the Russian language. But at the same time as we are well aware, our country, like no other, has a unique experience of different ethnic groups and cultures living and developing together, mutually enriching each other, and helping each other at the most difficult and dramatic times in their development, including during times of war.
”I hope that the regional governors and heads of all the areas that make up our multiethnic country will give priority to the issue of preserving interethnic unity because there can be no state without interethnic unity. All of us realise that in such case it will disappear. That is why we will continue our efforts.“
Today we saw, for example, the flags of Bashkir military units that took part in the war against Napoleon, in the Civil War, and in battles against the Nazi invaders. We must not lose hold of this legacy the past has created, and must not exchange it for all sorts of small conflicts. I think that personalities of standing among all of our country’s different peoples should be constantly reminding us all of this, because this is part of their role, as people with influence, people seen as leaders by many. I am talking about scholars, scientists, businesspeople, and of course about members of the clergy, for they are all often seen as moral authorities. They have an extremely important part to play, and so they should be firm, direct and open about declaring where they stand. Only this way can we preserve peace and harmony in our multiethnic country.
I propose that we discuss these and other issues, and I hope to hear new proposals from you on this subject.
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Now I would like to go over the proposals that have been made on top of the instruction that will be issued following the State Council meeting. They concern additional financial support to the production and dissemination of socially important electronic media output, including materials aimed at children and young people, and encouraging the media to address the issues of Russian national identity, cultural and ethnic diversity, and creating websites in Russia’s minority languages. These goals are very important, and must certainly be reflected in the Government’s activities. Therefore, I would like to strongly emphasise that the Government and the ministers must pay particular attention to this in their daily activities, including the financing for specific projects.
Now on the issues raised in your reports.
”Our task is to create a full-fledged Russian nation while preserving the identity of all the peoples inhabiting our country. Only then will we be strong.“
I’ll begin with work organisation brought up by the Regional Development Minister. On the whole, I think we already have all sorts of agencies; there are no shortages in that regard. As our colleague from the Civic Chamber quite rightly pointed out, we have created scores of different bodies while the potential of large agencies, such as the Civic Chamber or regional civic chambers, is not realised to the full.
Incidentally, I think that the Civic Chamber’s experience could well be extended to the regions, and it could fill an important need in the parts of the country that do not have their own local chambers, because it is a representative body of civil society.
The Regional Development Ministry is in charge of ethnic policy, but the ministry is what it is, it is headed by the Minister, and it is not his job to liaise with other ministries. Therefore, I think it would be justified to establish a coordinating council or commission to discuss these issues. I believe such a commission should be headed by one of the top Government officials, at least at the level of deputy prime minister. Please think about it and I will issue relevant instructions.
We have already discussed the legal liability for violations that infringe on the rights and freedoms or incite interethnic hatred. If necessary, we can consider increasing liability, although very severe penalties often don’t work because of the established criminal proceedings policy. I think primarily it depends on the way these sanctions are interpreted by the prosecution authorities, investigators and judges.
If such crimes are regarded as serious, the punishment for them will also be severe, whereas if people treat it as a trifle, if they say, What’s the big deal, he just posted some stuff online, he didn’t kill anyone – in that case the offender will get away with a suspended sentence. But often these seemingly trivial actions lead to enormous conflicts, including the most brutal, the bloodiest clashes. Therefore, the classification of the crime is the responsibility of the prosecution and the judge.
I would like to draw the attention of all our colleagues who oversee law enforcement in this area that these offenses can exacerbate the situation and lead to other grave crimes. You must bear this in mind when deliberating the type of punishment for such offenders.
As for the media, its role in promoting interethnic unity is enormous. There is no doubt that the influence of the media, whether electronic, print or the new online media, as well as the impact of the global communications is absolutely huge. Therefore, the language we use has an enduring effect.
The term ”hate speech“ was mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, it has penetrated the media too. Perhaps some media outlets simply underrate its importance; after all, nobody wants to destroy their country or to aggravate interethnic relations – but they use such language, without thinking about the consequences, without thinking that they can offend certain ethnic groups, and it doesn’t matter which, whether they are talking about people from the North Caucasus, Russians, Tatars or Bashkirs. It does not matter who they are talking about. We must pay special attention to this, and to language in general.
I sometimes notice that television programmes abound in unacceptable terms, which are slipped in casually. At times we can hear definitions and characteristics that are incompatible with our national state division, our administrative and territorial division; we often hear cliches and terminology borrowed from separatist and extremist political theories. By the way, the media has often been criticised for such comments. They report for example that “the emir of such and such a jamaat has been detained.” What emir? What jamaat? We all realise that these are not fighters for their faith but murderers and bandits, who do not have any jamaats, but only dirty, stinking caves where they hide, and they are no emirs but just freaks who kill children and women. Nevertheless, media go on repeating these titles in their reports. And this is stacked away on a subconscious level, so be sure to pay attention to terminology, we cannot allow such reports that turn everything on its head. There are laws of public propaganda, which ultimately will begin to work against us, again on a subconscious level.
Our major challenge is to forge a future national identity. I would like to reiterate what I said at the State Council meeting and what most of my colleagues spoke about. Our task is to create a full-fledged Russian nation while preserving the identity of all the peoples inhabiting our country. Only then will we be strong. There is no reason to feel reluctant, to smile, to say that an attempt was already made to create a nation once. Yes, we did not fully succeed then but the process of building a nation was interrupted by the breakdown of the state. I will not go into the reasons for it now. Other nations have succeeded in this task and so must we.
We mentioned different events here, including Daghestan’s role in preserving the peace in the 1990s. It is absolutely true, and that is the kind of unity that has the greatest value. It is vital to bear it in mind, especially now, when quite complex events are unfolding in Daghestan. Nevertheless, Daghestan’s role must never be forgotten. Those are recent events, and many North Caucasus peoples and the whole country owe Daghestan a debt of gratitude for the resistance to the bandits. I emphasise, these events took place only recently.
I also support the idea of the Caspian forum, as well as a forum that could be held in Bashkortostan. I believe that the more such regional forums the better, and they don’t have to be huge, they can be compact. Let people come here to socialise, come to Daghestan, to the Caspian Sea. We already have a forum that takes place elsewhere in the North Caucasus. It is a useful initiative, and we just need to organise the efforts and allocate some funds.
Finally, the subject we have recently been paying increased attention to is interethnic and interfaith relations, unfortunately, due to the escalation of tension in these relations that we have witnessed, which is very sad, as each of us present here is responsible for the situation in the country, especially the President and regional governors.
”Subject we have recently been paying increased attention to is interethnic and interfaith relations, unfortunately, due to the escalation of tension in these relations that we have witnessed, which is very sad, as each of us present here is responsible for the situation in the country, especially the President and regional governors.“
I've looked it up online and have seen that people are eyeing this State Council Presidium meeting, and quite closely. People post messages on Twitter saying, “Haven’t you had enough of listening to reposts, don’t you mind wasting all this time?” I want to tell you that I don’t regret spending this time because our efforts have two results.
Our work here is attracting people's attention, makes them think about the kind of state we are trying to create, to think about the role of each of us in strengthening interethnic unity.
Second, more importantly, it encourages action, perhaps not as quickly as we would like, but the impetus is there. I hope that the regional governors and heads of all the areas that make up our multiethnic country will give priority to the issue of preserving interethnic unity because there can be no state without interethnic unity. All of us realise that in such case it will disappear. That is why we will continue our efforts. Thank you.