Blogger and ace Russia scholar Paul Goble offers the following two-part overview of the Kremlin’s alienation of Russia’s eastern provinces, which now are looking to China and independence to secure their future. What a wonderful legacy that Great Leader Vladimir Putin is leaving behind him! How wise were the people of Russia to choose such brilliant visionary!
And how long before Putin must rely upon the tactics of Stalin to hold his sham nation together?
Transbaikal residents overwhelmingly identify themselves as “Siberians” regardless of their ethnicity, a new survey shows. And while most would settle for greater autonomy, a significant share says that they would welcome independence should the Russian Federation dissolve in the future. In an article provocatively titled “Will the Russian Federation Survive Until 2014?” Vitaly Kamyshev, a “Sibiryak” himself, reports that Irkutsk’s “Who’s Who” Agency determined that 80 percent of residents there identify as “Siberians” while only 12 percent say they are “Russians”. The same poll also found that approximately three Transbaikal residents out of five want greater autonomy for Siberia as a whole and that one in four – some 25 percent – are for a Siberia independent of the Russian Federation. (Unfortunately, Kamyshev does not give details on exactly when this poll was conducted or how many it queried.)
One reason for this perhaps surprising choice is the campaign by local Siberian activists to promote the ideas of 19th century “oblastniki” like Grigoiy Potanin and Nikolai Yadrintsev, who argued that Russia treated “Siberia as a colony,” and thus to gain seats for themselves in local legislatures, the last place where real electoral politics occur. But to far greater extent, this striking shift in self-identifications is an obvious reaction to three policies of President Vladimir Putin.
First, his re-centralization of power and his reduction in the size of inter-regional transfers have re-ignited long-simmering tensions between Moscow and the regions.
Second, Putin himself has unwittingly put regionalism in play by his efforts to combine existing federal units into new and larger ones, a process by which he clearly hopes to push out the ethnic dimension of Russian federalism. In Siberia and the Russian Far East, five small regions are now set to be combined with larger ones. On the one hand, that has the effect of undermining the importance of ethnicity as Putin wants, at least in some cases, but only at the cost of leading non-Russian elites to seek new accords on a regional basis with Russian ones, an effort that by itself makes regional identities more important than ethnic ones. On the other, by putting the question of the borders of regions into play again, Putin has unintentionally encouraged others especially in places far from Moscow to think about how they would redraw the political map of the Russian Federation in order to maximize their power. Elites in Khabarovsk kray, for example, having gotten approval to absorb two numerically small non-Russian areas, now talk openly about a greater Khabarovsk that would both become the largest federal unit in the country and have much greater influence in national politics.
And third, Putin has sought to downplay ethnic Russian identity as well by promoting the non-ethnic “Rossiyane” as the future civic nation the Russian president says the country must have given its ethnic divisions. That does not satisfy many ethnic Russians or many ethnic non-Russians, and regionalism may become the choice of both.
Now as in the past, Moscow has sought to limit the rise of Siberian identity by playing up what it says is the threat of Chinese colonization of the region. But that argument, Kamyshev says, may be wearing thin: Ever more people in Siberia believe they are a colony already and some think they would be better off with a different master. None of this, of course, is to say that Siberian regionalism as either an identity or a movement is strong enough to pose any immediate threat to Moscow. But it is to suggest that downplaying ethnicity as Putin has done may not translate directly and without any problems into Russian patriotism. Instead, as this Irkutsk poll suggests, many who others view as members of particular nationalities or as inevitable “Rossiyane” may decide to view themselves in regionalist terms, a development that could pose serious challenges for Russia’s development not only in 2014 but perhaps much sooner.
Although they have attracted little attention to date, residents and even officials in some predominantly Russian regions appear to be just as interested in asserting sovereignty or even seceding as are their counterparts in many of the non-Russian regions and republics of the Russian Federation. In an article appearing in this week’s “Nashe vremya,” Aleksandr Gazov argues that it is a mistake to focus only on non-Russian secessionist challenges even though he concedes that “the main moving force of any ‘liberation movement’ is membership in a particular nationality.” But there is no reason to think that one such “particular nationality” cannot be Russian, Gazov suggests, especially because the three major impulses for secession – anti-Moscow attitudes, a sense of the loss of historical status, and economic problems – can affect Russians just as much as non-Russians.
The “Nashe vremya” journalist then surveys some of what he suggests are the most intriguing examples of ethnic Russian secessionist ideas and movements before producing a ranking generated by a foreign human rights activist of the probabilities that any one of these or indeed of non-Russian challenges will succeed. In the first instance, he points to secessionist groups in Novgorod, Pskov and Bryansk. In all three cases, local officials appear to be backing local intellectuals who argue that Moscow has taken something away from them: democracy in the case of Novgorod and economic opportunities in the case of Pskov and Bryansk. Then, he considers nationalist and secessionist trends among non-Russian groups not only in the North Caucasus – the only region most Muscovites think there is any secessionist challenge at all – but also in the Middle Volga among the Tatars, Bashkirs, Komi, Mordvin, and Mari and in Siberia among the Sakha and Buryats.
Gazov also considers the interesting case of Karelia, an ethnic republic whose population is now overwhelmingly ethnic Russian rather than the titular Karels or Finns. He notes that a Petrozavodsk city deputy has called for erecting a statue of Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish leader who fought against Soviet forces. And finally he examines three broader Russian secessionist groups: those who want to form a truly Russian republic by jettisoning all non-Russian areas within the Russian Federation, those who back a Urals Republic, and finally those who want Siberia to be an independent state.
In some of these places, Gazov says, secessionist ideas are discussed only on the Internet among small coteries of intellectuals. But in many and especially Siberia, there is evidence that increasingly powerful governors are intrigued by the idea of independence and covertly support groups who push ideas the governors themselves cannot do openly. He writes: “today’s governors are welcome guests at all kinds of international events and are already accustomed to conduct foreign policy negotiations on their own. It is thus not surprising that in their minds arises the thought about an independent Siberia, free from Moscow, the Kremlin and the entire rest of the country.” But of course, Gazov continues, even the most powerful of such governors recognize that they cannot at th epresent moment at least “speak openly about such things” but they have every reason not to prevent others from doing so – or even helping them from behind the scenes.
Another force standing behind any drive for Siberian independence is Beijing, which has long cast a covetous eye to the resources and open spaces of the country to its north, Gazov writes. And the Chinese appear to be providing some funds to get Russians to speak out in favor of this alternative. “Already today,” Gazov continues, “in Irkutsk, Omsk and Novosibirsk ever more often are heard calls for more active cooperation with China which must become the chief ally of an independent Siberia.” At the end of his article, Gazov reproduces an estimate prepared by Costa Rican human rights activist Maximiliano Herrera as to the probability that any region in Russia may secede in the long term. This list is, as Gazov notes, only one person’s opinion, but it is intriguing, and it has now been introduced to the Russian audience. Herrera, who maintains his own website and whose complete list of the likelihood of secessionist challenges around the world can be found online as well, gives the following estimates of the chances for successful secession by regions in Russia:
Bashkortostan – more than 20 percent
Eastern Siberia – 30 percent
Daghestan – 40 percent
Ingushetia – 35 percent
Kabardino-Balkaria –20 percent
Kaliningrad – 35 percent
Kamchatka –15 percent
Karachai-Cherkessia – 15 percent
Magadan – 15 percent
Mari El – 20 percent
Primorskiy kray – 20 percent
Sakhalin – 20 percent
North Osetia – more than 20 percent
Stavropol kray – 10 percent
Tatarstan – more than 40 percent
Tuva – 10 percent
Chechnya – 55 percent
Chukotka – 20 percent
Sakha – 20 percent
What is most intriguing about this list, of course, is that Russian regions appear as likely or even more likely than non-Russian ones to secede. That is Gazov’s point, but to date, few in Moscow or elsewhere are prepared to take that seriously or to think about reworking the country’s federal system in order to keep the country in one piece.