Staunton, June 22 – Because Moscow has so centralized revenues and decision making and radically lowered the quality of those who head the federal subjects, the Russian Federation faces something worse than disintegration along their borders: it faces radical destabilization as Moscow cannot pay and regional officials cannot hold the line, according to Vladimir Golyshev.
Since the beginning of this year when Yevgeny Primakov suggested that Moscow had little choice but to return authority to the regions, many in Russia have assumed, drawing on the model of 1991, that Russia is “condemned to disintegration,” the regional writer says. And it is not unthinkable that destabilization will ultimately lead to disintegration but only after a time.
But that ignores the dependence of the existing regional heads on Moscow and their lack of political experience in effectively managing those below them, a situation that means that in contrast to the more experienced politicians of 1990-1991, they are committed to staying within Russia even though the situation is likely to get out of hand.
What happened 25 years ago, everyone knows. “What will happen next is something we can only guess at,” Golyshev says. But “a comparative analysis” is suggestive. “In the 1990s, at the head of the regions stood former heads of CPSU regional committees – that is, experienced bureaucrats whom the population was accustomed to accept as ‘natural bosses.’”
“Exactly the same kind of party cadres became the first presidents of the post-Soviet states,” Golyshev points out. And two of them, Nazarbayev and Karimov are still there. “More than that, even in Moscow sat people of the same caliber: Gorbachev from Stavropol, Ligachev from Omsk, and Yeltsin from Sverdlovsk.”
Now, the people in these slots lack those kind of experiences and skills. As long as the oil and gas money was coming in, this wasn’t a problem since under Vladimir Putin’s system, regional officials don’t have the authority to make many decisions. But that was before it became obvious that the oil price slump will continue for years to come.
A similar pattern obtained in the economy, Golyshev says. In the early 1990s, the “red directors” for all their shortcomings were nonetheless assumed not to be stealing from their workers and spending money on themselves abroad. Now, that has changed as well; and that too changes the relationship between the people and the regional elites.
What is likely to happen in this situation can be summed up “with the help of one single word – pogroms,” popular attacks on “administration buildings, company offices, stores, homes, and the burning of luxury cars.” Some regional leaders may be able to defend themselves, most will turn to Moscow, but the center doesn’t have the resources to save everyone.
But one thing is clear, Golyshev says. Russia as a whole won’t be able to withstand this for very long. “A quarter of a century on, we remain an as-yet undissolved fragment of the USSR (the former RSFSR)” and not a real country of the kind its current leadership imagines.
Fears about that explain both Moscow’s obsession with the idea of national unity and its aggressive approach to the former Soviet republics which are its neighbors. If the first has become a fetish, the second represents its mirror image: the idea that such “’unity’ is impossible without expansion.”
That is because “Russia in its current borders is an historical misunderstanding,” the regionalist says. The borders of the Russian Empire, while not just and often the result of bloody conquest, at least make some sense; those of the USSR have “approximately the same” standing, Golyshev says.
“But what about the Russian Federation?” Where did its borders come from? From decisions by Soviet leaders and thus it is truly a “misunderstanding” masquerading in the form of a country. And consequently, its current leaders are trying to build a country by restoring an empire so that there will be unity within it.
The logic in this, he suggests, is that “if there is no expansion, there will be no unity, and if there is no unity, there will be … hmm … and what in fact will be lose? Who is going to seriously take up this question?”
As a result, “the disintegration of Russia into independent states of the number of federation subjects will never happen in reality, as will never be realized the seizure by the Russian Federation of all the territories which at one time or another belonged to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.”
“The Russian Federation attempted to annex unhappy Crimea and from the consequences of this ‘historic act’ started to fall apart. It has turned out that the expansionist vector for it is already a deadly poison.” Perhaps, Golyshev suggests, doing just the opposite, that is letting some parts of the Russian Federation go, would be a good “medicine,” especially given the looming dangers of destabilization in so many places.
As that happens, he says, it is likely that groups of oligarchs and politicians will band together to form new super regions in an effort to take charge of the situation. Siberia is an obvious candidate. “Could these processes lead Russia to disintegration? Of course they could. Why not?” Remember what happened to Mikhail Gorbachev.
But should everyone be obsessively fearing this? Not really, and for two reasons, Golyshev suggests. On the one hand, the destabilization that will come first will be much more disturbing under the circumstances. And on the other, such a new “delimitation” will serve as “the prologue” for a new wave of integration in the future.