Ominous Rumblings in the Russian Provinces

First the failed policies of Vladimir Putin gave rise to tumult in the country’s southern reaches, and now the north and elsewhere as the economic crisis deepens. Paul Goble reports:

For the first time in their history, the numerically small peoples of the Taymyr peninsula organized a public protest against the way in which Moscow has run roughshod over their rights in its desire to develop natural resources, a protest that is echoing across the northern third of the territory of the Russian Federation. On November 1st, members of the Dolgan, Nenets, En, Nganasan, and Evenk nationalities in the former Taymyr autonomous district assembled in zero degree Fahrenheit weather demanding that their region be given the special status it was promised when it was folded into Krasnoyarsk kray.

But it is a measure of the isolation of these groups from Moscow that word of their action reached Moscow only ten days after it took place, and it is an indication of their marginality in the eyes of Russian officialdom and even the Russian public that this event did not receive more than passing mention in all but a few opposition websites.

The Taymyr demonstrators, who were led by their shamans, handed over an appeal to the Russian president and the speaker of the Federal Assembly detailing their complaints about the way that they have been treated since they agreed in a referendum to be amalgamated into Krasnoyarsk kray. On the one hand, they complained that kray programs failed to take into consideration “the territorial, transportation, and climatic features” of their region. And on the other, they pointed to the absence of a local voice in issues involving health, education, the environment, veterinary services, and the like.
Similar if even more pointed complaints have been voiced in the former Komi-Permyak autonomous district, the first federal subject to be amalgamated. There, the special ministry for the affairs of the district set up in the Perm kray government has been gutted, with only 28 of the planned 75 officials still in place. And in the former Evenk autonomous district, the population has been collecting signatures – it has already gathered 2300, 15 percent of the total Evenk population — and successfully appealing to all-Russian and international environmental groups to block the construction of a hydroelectric dam which would destroy their traditional homeland.

In every case, observers in Moscow say, none of the people in these “former autonomous districts lives better than they did before the amalgamation [of their units] into larger ones,” in large measure because neither the central government nor the new kray regimes have kept the promises they made during the referendums. “A few years ago, when they voted for the liquidation of these districts, local residents hoped that things would be better. Now, people on these expanded territories are beginning to recognize that the loss of their administrative-territorial status in fact means the loss of all the competitive advantages of their territories,” Moscow analyst Aleksandr Trofimov says. Moreover, he continues, residents are beginning to see that both the titular nationalities and the ethnic Russians living there have suffered, leaving the latter equally embittered. And that means there will be less support for future amalgamation projects, particularly if regional leaders have political and economic resources they can deploy against Moscow.

That already appears to be the case in the Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiisk districts, which have enormous natural resources and whose leaders have been able to put pressure on Moscow to back down from its plans to combine them with neighboring Russian oblasts and krays. Unfortunately for the peoples of the Russian North, a new threat has appeared on the horizon: Vladimir Putin’s plans to build new transcontinental highways, railway lines, and pipelines across the region, plans that would pass through the homelands of these peoples and likely undermine their way of life.

In the “Argumenty nedeli,” Pavel Sulyandziga, the first vice president of the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, says that Putin’s plans now fill him with “terrible concern” about the fate of his fellow minorities. Sulyandziga, who is a member of the Social Chamber and of UN bodies about indigenous peoples around the world, says that the situation of the indigenous population of the Russian North has been getting worse for decades but that at least in the 1993 Constitution there were provisions for their protection. But “beginning in 2001” – the start of Putin’s reign as president – Moscow quietly and without explanation began to eliminate both in the laws and in practice any protections for the minorities of the northern third of the country, even while the Kremlin denied in international forums that it was doing so.

Sulyandziga says that he is receiving “disturbing signals” from those regions where preparatory work has started for these new transcontinental projects. “No one is informing the indigenous peoples about [that], builders are coming, they are beginning to chop down forests” and otherwise despoil the environment on which the indigenous people rely.

Moscow’s approach is wrong and “an anachronism,” the ethnic activist says, pointing out that “there are numerous examples of the organization of civilized interrelationships of industrial companies and indigenous peoples and of the resolution of the land questions of indigenous peoples.” And Sulyandziga warns that “the lack of resolution of these questions can generate social tensions during the construction of these projects and” – and this is certainly a bigger card to play in today’s Moscow – cause “foreign investors” to think twice before putting money into projects in Russia that they would not be allowed to do at home.

In fact, Goble reports that resentment of the Kremlin is spreading far and wide due to the economic crisis:

As the economic crisis in Russia deepens, the leaders of many regions and republics are criticizing Moscow for failing to provide resources and the Russian government is lashing back charging these officials with failing to perform well, an exchange that has created situation in which regionalist and separatist challenges are growing.

The economic crisis, which Moscow so long denied, is now hitting the Kremlin’s “beloved” vertical of power, the Ura.ru portal says. Because Moscow cannot give the regions the resources it promised, the leaders of that latter find themselves in an increasingly difficult position with their own people.
And they are protecting themselves by starting “to criticize the center for its thieving policy relative to the provinces.” At the very least, the news agency’s analysts say, such attacks are both exacerbating and legitimizing anti-Moscow attitudes in many regions. And in some, there have begun to “be heard openly separatist declarations.

Not surprisingly, the government of Vladimir Putin has decided to strike back, announcing that it will provide resources to the regions according to how well each of them meets standards set by the center and creating a new governmental commission on regional policy headed by the prime minister himself. The regions have been hit hard by Moscow’s inability to provide the funds it promised, with the main question before many of them being “how to survive” rather than “how to complete reforms” the central government has ordered but not provided the money they need to do so.

Next year, federal subventions to the regions appear likely to fall 10 to 20 percent, an enormous sum. In Tyumen, for instance, no officials have figured how to cope with a decline in oil taxes now approaching 10 billion rubles (380 million U.S. dollars). Problems of a similar scale are hitting Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk. To no one’s surprise, those criticizing Moscow the most are regional leaders who were elected rather than appointed to their posts and who have frequently demonstrated their willingness to make use of nationalism to defend their position against the center and advance their republics’ interests.

Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev in an extraordinary message to his republic’s State Council last week noted that “the crisis has already touched the Tatar economy,” something for which he blamed Moscow. And he called for the strengthening of federalism and a revised treaty between the Russian and Tatar capitals. Moreover, he called for his republic to increase its bilateral ties with the CIS countries and the states of the Middle East, an appeal that undoubtedly sounds in Moscow like the beginning of a new parade of sovereignties and thus a threat to the system Putin created.

That is all the more likely because Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov echoed the same themes, openly declaring that “a worthy response to the challenges of the financial crisis could become the restoration of the elements of federalism dismantled earlier and the elimination of the existing lack of balance between the center and the subjects of the Federation.” And in the current environment, the Bashkir leader was quite prepared to draw support from the Gray Wolves organization, a nationalist grouping that has long insisted that Moscow “is ignoring the Bashkir people and conducted itself as ‘an imperialist colonizer’ in relation to the indigenous population.”

Whether such radical ideas will deepen and spread, of course, is far from clear, but Moscow is clearly worried that they could. The ruling United Russia Party recently told its regional branches to keep track of possible strike actions at major enterprises or any other political step locally that might promote unrest. And last week, Prime Minister Putin took three steps to try to bring the regional leaders to heel. First, he denounced them for failing to spend money wisely, thus attempting to shift the blame away from his government onto theirs, an effort that may play well in Moscow but is unlikely to beyond the ring road. Second, he announced that regions in the future will be given extra money only if they find a way to do what Moscow orders them to do, a suggestion that may lead ever more regional officials to begin to think how they may want to organize things given the increasing number of now unfunded mandates the central government is creating.And third, Putin announced the creation of a new commission on regional government policies which he said he will head. Most commentaries have suggested that will give him yet another whip hand in dealing with the regions given that he will be able to stack the deck in evaluating what they do. But it is entirely possible that that commission, to the extent that it is anything more than a shot-term public relations gimmick, will become the site of new struggles between the center and the regions and republics, one where the latter may come to work together more closely than in the past – a development that would also undercut the power vertical.

The clearest indication that regionalism and separatism are on the rise in the Russian Federation, however, came from another quarter: The leaders of one group of nations which seldom garners much attention felt compelled to deny very loudly that they don’t want to separate from Russia. Valery Markov, the chairman of the Consultative Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples of the World, said last Thursday that these peoples will “not support” those abroad who call for “the exit of the Finno-Ugric regions of Russia from within that state but instead will always “condemn ideas directed at separatism” in their region.

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