Russian media roundup: The Law on the Russian Nation, the nationalist march marking Unity Day and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Greece were the key topics discussed last week in the Russian media.

Servicemen wearing the Red Army uniform of the Great Patriotic War, during the ceremonial march commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1941 military parade on Red Square. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Oct. 31 Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the idea of creating a Law on the Russian Nation that would work toward the strengthening of interethnic relations within the country. The developers of the law propose introducing the term “Russian nation” to characterize Russian society and the “spiritual unity of the people of Russia.”

On the foreign policy front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Greece on Nov. 2. He met with his colleague Nikos Kotzias as well as with Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and President Prokopis Pavlopoulos. The meeting is important because Greece is one of the few European nations supporting a rollback of economic sanctions against Russia.

Finally, with the election campaign in the U.S. coming to a close on Nov. 8, members of the Russian media are using the last days remaining to discuss it. They are particularly focused on the volatile fluctuations in poll numbers, especially in the battleground states that will determine the election.

The Law on the Russian Nation

The business newspaper Vedomosti criticized the idea of creating a legal definition for the term “Russian nation.” It is a bit late for Russia to make such decisions – it was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union when many post-Soviet countries searched for their own identity and tried to define their national characteristics. In Russia, such an initiative is being discussed against the background of patriotic mobilization and the search for an external enemy. In such circumstances, nation-building through the introduction of new laws might repeat the Soviet experience and create a fictive and unstable society.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia published the opinion of sociologist Leokadia Drobizheva, who thinks that the initiative is being perceived too literally. In practice, this law aims to promote the formation of civil identity in Russia, which now is virtually absent. The introduction of a law that would define not only what the Russian nation is, but also list the necessary political measures to strengthen interethnic relations, would play an important role.

Such a policy should be among the priorities of such a multiconfessional and multinational state as Russia. There are Russians from 190 nations living in the country and it is a very difficult task to unite them into one Russian nation, according to the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. It is not yet clear how this is possible in practice, given that a simple legislative definition of the term will not have a serious impact on society.

The publication notes that the topic is so controversial that it would be unlikely that there is going to be a unity on it in the State Duma. May be this is not really necessary – may be this question was raised to distract the public attention from other social and economic laws, such as the increase in taxes.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "National Identity: The 25-year search for a new Russia"

The march on Unity Day

“The Russian march” is an annual march of Russian nationalists marking the celebration of Unity Day on Nov. 4. The march was most popular in 2010-2011 when around 25,000 people participated in the event. This year the march only attracted about 350 people. The Russian media explored the reasons why such parades are no longer popular among the public.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta wrote that a significant factor was the absence of the traditional leaders of the nationalist movement, as the majority of them are in prison. Even those that attended the march this year do not share an understanding of the movement’s objectives.

On the one hand, some part of the movement has moved from anti-Semitism and “Russia for Russians” slogans to calling for more state responsibility in resolving the national question and switching the focus to social, economic and human rights issues. Other participants still think in terms of “Jewish conspiracies” and “removing Caucasians from Moscow,” which does not play well for the movement.

The pro-government TV channel Life gave the floor to publicist Anton Kotenev, who regards the participants of the march as “freaks and scarecrows” of the residential districts. The agenda for such events exhausted itself long ago and respectable Russian nationalism does not have anything in common with “Russian marches” – “a Russian march” in fact is nothing more than the “usual leftist, post-colonial, emancipatory rhetoric.” In this sense, according to Kotenev, the “Russian march” is not any different from a parade celebrating LGBT rights.

The tabloid Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes about a deep split between the nationalists. It was in 2014 when the Ukrainian question divided the movement and until now they were unable to resolve the controversy. At the same time, a competition for leadership has increased. All these factors, as well as state pressure to push the nationalists away from bigger political stakes in Russia, are helping to determine their outsider status.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visits Greece

With a history of friendship between the two states, Greece is one of the few EU countries that are supporting dialogue with Moscow and calling for the cancellation of sanctions, according to the business daily Kommersant. Although the Kremlin knows that there is little Greece can do to influence the EU, it highly values its position. Besides, there are many joint projects in economics and trade, transport and infrastructure as well as in cultural cooperation.

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta called Lavrov’s visit a diplomatic marathon. There were many important meetings and negotiations, including those dedicated to the potential participation of Greece in the implementation of the Turkish Stream. The paper noted that Greece and its agriculture sector suffered seriously from the Russian retaliatory food sanctions but it has little influence on Brussels. In this light, Moscow sees the dialogue with Athens as some kind of a long-term investment, especially if it can become a way to discuss potential ways to bypass economic sanctions legally.

The last stage of the U.S. presidential election

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta points out that the current electoral cycle in the U.S. is characterized by high volatility. The gain in Trump’s popularity and drop in Clinton’s support just a week before the voting day adds uncertainty to the campaign, which the paper regards as “lacking substance” and overloaded with scandals around the candidates’ personalities.

The key to the victory lies in the hands of those battleground states that have not decided who they’d vote for, writes Moskovsky Komsomolets. But the publication does not think that Trump will win because the polls do not show that he will win - not only the votes of uncommitted voters but also the votes of the people in traditionally Republican states. Trump’s former opponents in the primaries could potentially use their influence to keep him out of the White House and end his political career.

Expert comment:

Kirill Koktysh, political expert and associate professor at MGIMO University, on the proposed Law on the Russian Nation

The Law on the Russian Nation could turn out to be part of the “yawning heights” described by the Soviet philosopher Alexander Zinoviev. [Zinoviev wrote a book called the “Yawning Heights,” which is now seen as a satire of Soviet society – Editor’s note] The point is that, throughout its history, the Russian nation identified itself not according to the right of blood or the right of land as in the European tradition, but according to more complex values. In this way, in the Russian Empire a person was regarded Russian if he or she was Orthodox.

Thus, there were “Russian Georgians” or “Russian Armenians,” without any conflicts with their national identity. For instance, the hero of war with Napoleon, Prince Bagration, was half-Georgian, half-Armenian and it did not prevent him from calling himself Russian. In the Soviet Union, the key role in self-identification was attributed to the values, not to the nation: The Soviet authority cultivated a new community – a Soviet people.

So, the main intrigue of the Law on the Russian Nation is what factor will be dominant in determining the Russian nation. If this would include transnational values, allowing for a merging of Russian identity with other national identities, then it’d be possible to talk about a revival of a centuries-old Russian tradition.

If there were efforts to determine the nation through blood or land ties, then it’d be, without a doubt, a step back that might have destructive implications.