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  • Reflections on Russian Compatriot Policy on the Eve of the Anniversary of the August 1991 Coup

    18.09.2016 | Comments | Culture | 562

    The failed coup of August 19-21, 1991, marked the demise of the Soviet Union and a birth of new national states. It’s a date of a great significance for those who celebrate the 25 years anniversary of independence, feeling relief and hope for future. Whilst their Russian compatriots consider this date as a turning point since they have been confused till recently with the very fact of the breakup of the Soviet Empire.

    In many parts of post-soviet space ethnic Russians likely just in their way to a new identity. The majority of them successfully managed to adapt themselves to new circumstances. Although few of them still trying to come to final decision.

    In this regard the most favorable situation amongst Central Asian republics is likely in Kazakhstan. According to recent social research, held in 2015, about 60 percent of the Russians, living in Kazakhstan, do not want to leave the country (Simakova, 2016). “Russians feel themselves welcomed and comfortable in all spheres of a life”, says Lobanov, one of the Russian diaspora leader of Kazakhstan (Kalashnikova, 2016).

    The issue of Russian compatriots appeared gradually after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, when approximately 20-25 million of ethnic Russians just overnight found themselves living in almost every post-soviet republic.

    In addition to ethnic Russians one should mention here the existence of the so-called culturally Russified population holding strong ties and affiliation to Russian Federation. Pilkington and Flynn claim there was about 11 million of people to be classified as culturally Russified non-ethnic Russian population (Hillary Pilkington and Moya Flynn, 1999).

    However, strong connection and affiliation with Russian language and culture is not enough to draw a line between ethnic Russians and Russian speaking populations. As Zevelev states existing differences among them significantly ranging from the degree of integration into the host country and economic welfare of an each particular family up to crucial differences in political participation, social life or expectation in regard to emigration and future perspectives (Zevelev, 2001).

    In this regard, Smith and Wilson argue that Russia faces a difficult task of how to combine a diverse and multi-faceted understanding of the Russian-speaking population into a homogeneous cohesive group to follow shared identity of Russian diaspora (Graham Smith and Andrew Wilson, 1997).

    Today Russia considers the issue of Russian compatriots (ethnic Russians, Russian-speaking population or anyone else who feels sympathy or has close cultural and mental ties to Moscow) as significant in order to determine its strategy in relation to the in post-soviet republics. But discussions and debates over the fate of Russian compatriots has transformed into vital interest of Russian Federation gradually. It has taken place long before Putin’s speech of 1 July 2014, when he stated that “Russia will continue to defend the rights of Russian compatriots using the entire range of available means – from political and economic to operations under international humanitarian law and the right of self-defense” (Putin, 2014)[1]. It was started by president Yeltsin during his first term presidency, when the official foreign policy concept approved by president Yeltsin in April 1993 reflected the new approach which was known as “pragmatic nationalist” stance. Yeltsin was the first politician who had emphasized Moscow's rights and responsibilities in the states of the former USSR as one of the foreign policy priority of Russia. It was him who started first to use the term Near Abroad in respect to the post-soviet republics officially, taking into account ethnic Russians and Russian speaking population. It is notable that “of the nine vitally important interests listed in the document, only the third pertained to the world outside the borders of the former USSR” (Donaldson, 2016).    

    Meanwhile, an image of discriminated and prejudiced “Russian compatriots abroad” transformed the issue of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking population in the former soviet republics into main debates of internal Russian politics in the middle of 1990th – beginning of 2000th. At that time it was normal to watch on Russian TV how the populist politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergey Glazyev, Dmitry Rogozin, Konstantin Zatulin, Alexander Prohanov and others accused post-soviet leadership in violation of human rights and often tried to build their election campaign through simple slogans, such as Russia is the main protector and guarantor of the rights of its “compatriots” in post-soviet republics.

    They aggressively pursued restoration of the nationalist and populist sentiments in contemporary Russian political discourse thus empowering authorities to run new approach. As a result, this new approach led to new Russian Compatriots Policy which sought to strengthen the relationship of the ethnic Russians to its historical homeland and involve a large numbers of Russian speaking-population into Russia’s orbit of influence and to evaluate its effectiveness as a foreign policy tool in many post-soviet republics, including Kazakhstan. Yeltsin’s successor Putin prefers to call these groups in one word – compatriots.

    Today Russia often tends to use an aggressive propaganda using invisible collaboration network amongst local expert community and mass media in Kazakhstan and in other post-soviet republics. Their strengthening has been crucial since joining of Kazakhstan into a Russian-led Eurasian integration process in 2010 and Ukraine’s refusal to do so.

    However, a comprehensive understanding of Russian foreign policy toward ethnic and non-ethnic Russian compatriots in Kazakhstan, as well as in almost every post-soviet republic, has become extremely important after Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s support for the pro-Russian separatist movement and paramilitary groups in Eastern Ukraine. These political and military developments has aroused much interest in academic and scientific circles in relation to Russian foreign policy toward Russian Compatriot Policy.

    Thus, the contemporary Russian compatriot policy in Russian foreign policy has been evolving and has been advancing in dramatic fashion. There are two main dimensions of this policy: one directed towards all kind of Russian-speaking populations of the post-soviet republics, and one towards the Near Abroad states themselves. Despite the rhetoric of deep interest and high respect for Russian compatriots in the post-soviet republics, the Russian compatriot policy has evolved from the big-brother attitude on compatriots residing abroad to the Russian Motherland to the Russia’s economic and political claims used by the Kremlin to justify its regional and global aspirations in global politics.


    1. Simakova, Olga. Emigratsya russkih: priglashenie k razmishlenyu. // Kazakhstan-Spectr, 2016/1 (75). – P. 106.

    2. Kalashnikova, Anna. Alexey Lobanov: Ya ne veru v iskrennost teh, kto vivodil ludey na mitingi. 9 September, 2016. Retrieved at:

    3. Hillary Pilkington, Moya Flynn. From “Refugee” to “Repatriate”: Russian repatriation discourse in the making // In R. Black and E. Koser (ed), The end of the refugee cycle? Refugee repatriation and reconstruction. Oxford: Berghahn, 1999, - P. 171-195.

    4. Zevelev, Igor. Russia and its new Diasporas. Washington: Unites States Peace Institute, 2001. – P. 92

    5. Graham Smith, Andrew Wilson. Rethinking Russia’s Post-Soviet Diaspora: the potential for political mobilization in Eastern Ukraina and North-East Estonia // Europe-Asia Studies, 49 (5), July 1997, pp. 845-864.

    6. Putin Vows to “Actively Defend” Russians Living Abroad.  Retrieved at: 2 July, 2014.

    7. Donaldson, R. H. Boris Yeltsin's Foreign Policy Legacy. 9 September, 2016. Retrieved at:

    [1] Putin Vows to 'Actively Defend' Russians Living Abroad.  Retrieved at: 2 July, 2014. 

    Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute's editorial policy.

    Tags: Russia, Cis, Russian