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National Cultural Autonomy in Russia: A Case of Symbolic Law

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In this article, the author discusses the Russian experience in utilizing the no- tion of non-territorial, or 'national cultural', autonomy for the management of ethnic diversity. The term 'national-cultural autonomy' can be used to mean several things, including a right, a political principle, and a specific type of organization. The author assumes that such notions as autonomy, ethnicity, group, and culture should not be reified, and must be regarded as practical categories with shifting meanings and implications; he also emphasizes the need to distinguish between symbolic and instrumental law.

The point of departure is the disjuncture between the high symbolic status and negligible instrumental value of national-cultural autonomy in Russia. The author provides an overview of the Russian legislation on nongovernmental organizations, of the 1996 Federal Law on National-Cultural Autonomy, and of other legislation incorporating the notion of national-cultural autonomy. He concludes that NCAs, which are legally defined as NGOs, face a number of disadvantages vis-à-vis other types of NGOs. National-cultural autonomy also should not be seen as a political tool, since no efforts have been made to implement the goals declared or implied in the law or in official statements. In the meantime, the idea of national-cultural autonomy is highly valued, and the number of NCAs in Russia has been growing over the years.

The author concludes that the very issue of national-cultural autonomy in Russia should not be regarded in terms of the law and legal regulation; rather, it must be seen in terms of symbolism. The idea of national-cultural autonomy is a component of the Russian public consensus on the way ethnic diversity should be described and managed.


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