Staunton, November 9 – Most people who predict the disintegration of the Russian Federation focus on ethnicity, but in fact, as the situation in Karelia shows, ethnicity plays a much smaller role in mobilizing the population to defend itself against Moscow than do competitive elections, Vadim Shtepa says.
“Real regionalism,” the Karelian activist and commentator says, begins not with ethnicity but with local self-administration,” as the situation in his republic shows. There, the governor appointed by Moscow is an ethnic Finn, named to his post by Vladimir Putin “according to the same ethnocratic logic: ‘You’re a Finn; they will take you for one of their own.”
But in fact, Shtepa says, Aleksandr Khudilaynen has not been accepted in Karelia despite his name and background. Instead, exactly the reverse has happened: “all local movements, even national ones, have come out in opposition to this ‘outsider.'”
And “local self-administration has found its embodiment in Galina Shirshina,” the embattled but “freely elected mayor of Petrozavodsk,” the Karelian capital. In her case, “ethnicity did not play any role; the main thing is that our mayor was freely elected by citizens.” Shtepa adds that her case is “hardly unique” in the Russian Federation.
Shtepa’s argument prompts three further observations: First, there is an obvious but not always carefully made distinction between ethnicity (nationality) and local identity, with the latter frequently and even powerfully trumping the former especially if Moscow tries to use the former alone to run a regional government.
Consequently, a local ethnic Russian could become a more popular and powerful spokesperson for a non-Russian republic than a member of the titular nationality not associated with the republic for most or all of his or her career especially if he or she came to office by election rather than appointment.
Second, elections matter even more in terms of regional assertiveness than does ethnicity, something that provides yet another reason why Vladimir Putin is so opposed to such voting. If he allowed it many places, he could find himself confronted by the kind of regional restiveness that could shake the system even if he orchestrated it so that an ethnic Russian invariably won.
And third, because both ethnicity and elections are resources for regionalists, the most powerful regionalist challenge is still likely to emerge where the two correspond, where a local member of the titular nationality wins an election and thus can draw on both a primordial tie and the support of voters.