Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis

Latest Articles


How not to Grant Autonomy

A remote republic within Russia provides a lesson to Burma on how not to federate along ethnic lines

By Bertil Lintner/Birobidzhan/Russia

Of the many oddities that Russia inherited from the erstwhile Soviet Union, this must be the most peculiar: the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan. Located in a remote corner of the Russian Far East, it's as far from the Land of Canaan as one could possibly get, but there it is, wedged between the Chinese border and the mountains of Khabarovsky Territory. And strange as it may seem, there may be a distant parallel with Burma's ethnic minority situation.

Birobidzhan's railway station carries the name of the town in huge, neon-lit Cyrillic letters as well as Yiddish using the Hebrew script. A street is named after the Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem, on which there stands a Jewish Cultural Center.

The idea of a homeland for the Jews of the Ukraine and Russia was first conceived in the mid-1920s, partly to counter Zionist nationalism which, at the time, was spreading into the Soviet Union. In 1928, the swampy valley where the Bira and the Bidzhan converge was opened to Jewish settlers, and a town was built, named after the two rivers. In 1934, it was elevated to the status of an autonomous region and, encompassing 36,000 square km, it was larger than Palestine.

According to English travel writer Colin Thubron, it was hoped that Birobidzhan would "attract Jewish finance from the West, while populating the Soviet East against Japanese expansion. Above all, it would instate the jobless or unskilled Jews of European Russia as farmers in a conventional Soviet cast, insulated from their Orthodox elders, building the Socialist future."

During the first decade after 1928, 43,000 Jewish settlers arrived. Most of them came from Russia and the Ukraine, but also from Western Europe, North America, Argentina and even Palestine. Jewish schools were established, Yiddish newspapers were published, and textile factories grew up in and around the town. A Jewish Musical Chamber Theater with 40 singers and dancers toured foreign countries to promote migration to the area.

It also soon became clear that it was little more than just another Russian Potemkin village. The Jews were at the most 23 percent of the region's population, and the famous Jewish theater was not Jewish at all. The singers and dancers all came from Moscow, and most of them were actually ordinary Russians. They would pay token visits to Birobidzhan once a year or so, but that was all. As for the Jewish settlers, they began trickling back to European Russia only a few years after the autonomous region was officially inaugurated. By the end of the 1980s, only 22,000 remained.

When Russia and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1991, nearly all of the Birobidzhan Jews left. Most of them emigrated to Israel, but quite a few also ended up in the US and Europe. It is uncertain how many Jews remain there now. When asked, people thought it could not be more than a handful, and a recent visitor did not manage to find a single Jew during his brief stop in Birobidzhan. According to the most generous estimates, 4,800 remain. Other sources put the figure at less than 3,000, or 5.4 percent of the region's total population of 220,000 people. And most of these are planning to follow their forefathers to Israel.

So what are the similarities with Burma? The answer is quite simple. It is hard not to see striking similarities between Birobidzhan and the Burmese junta's sham tolerance of ethnic diversity. For instance, take past colorful Burmese Union Day parades and now the constitution-drafting "National Convention," where representatives of the minorities sit dressed up in fancy, elaborate costumes.and where many of them could actually be mainstream Burmese rather than real representatives of the country's ethnic groups. A play for the galleries without any substance.

Even democratic Burma's first 1947 constitution had drawn some inspiration from the Soviet Union. It granted the Shan and Karenni states the right to secede from the proposed Union of Burma after a 10-year period of independence, should they be dissatisfied with the new federation. The 1936 Soviet constitution had a similar right for its constituent states.but, in the Soviet Union, as in Burma, it was a right that was not actually meant to be exercised. The Soviet republics became independent entities only after the union collapsed in 1991.

There is no separatist movement in Birobidzhan, but in recent years there has been something of a cultural revival in the area. Two years ago, the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the autonomous region was celebrated in style. Monuments honoring the first settlers and Sholom Aleichem were unveiled, a photo book was published, and the local authorities organized a sports festival for children called "Sholom-2004." The booming border trade with China has also prompted some of its former inhabitants to return from abroad. A new arch at the entrance to Birobidzhan has the name of the town prominently displayed in Hebrew. Today, students can once again take Hebrew and Yiddish lessons as well as culture classes at schools and institutes in Birobidzhan.although it is uncertain how many are actually doing this.

And, as of 1991, Birobidzhan has been referred to by some as a "republic" rather than just an "oblast," or area. Given the weakening of central power in Russia, many parts of this huge country are also becoming more autonomous, but by default rather than design. Birobidzhan is one of them, but the problem here is that there are so few Jews left that it cannot claim to have an ethnic identity that corresponds with the name of the territory.

A future, democratic and federal Burma could do well to study how other countries define regional autonomy. The tragic saga of Birobidzhan very clearly shows on what grounds and in accordance with which principles ethnic states or provinces should not be established. A "National Convention-type" showcase "union" would spell would the emergence of de facto autonomy in peripheral areas only because the center is weak.

Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet well as Yugoslavia.into a number of states should serve as a warning against how fragile federations based on ethnicity can be. The US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Malaysia are federations too, but their states are geographical areas, not territories where different ethnic groups are concentrated. Only India has an ethnically based federal system and that, not Birobidzhan, could serve as a model for a future Burma. A hastily drawn-up constitution, like the one in 1947, would not provide any lasting solution to Burma's seemingly eternal ethnic problems.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, June 2006

Back to articles