Staunton, August 13 – Despite Moscow’s apparently successful efforts to block a march in Novosibirsk this Sunday, the Russian authorities have failed to prevent the ideas behind it from spreading not only to other Siberian cities like Yekaterinburg but also and more seriously to Kaliningrad and Kuban.
Feliks Rivkin, an activist in Yekaterinburg, says that he will be leading a demonstration in his city for the same thing the Novosibirsk activists want: to force Moscow to live up to the Russian constitution and give Russian regions their federal rights. Even if the authorities refuse, he adds, his group plans to go ahead anyway.
Meanwhile, in Kaliningrad, local activists are picking up on the same ideas. One Moscow commentator, Vladimir Titov, argues that Kaliningraders don’t have all the bases for launching an independence movement, but he suggests that “the single place in Russia where at present regionalism as a political direction has real prospects” is precisely there.
Kaliningrad’s non-contiguous location, its closeness to European Union countries, and the fact that 25 percent of its residents have Shengen visas and 60 percent have foreign passports all have the effect of making ever more Kaliningraders look toward Europe rather than toward Russia proper.
Well-off Kaliningraders are buying property in the EU, they are sending their children to study in Lithuania, Poland and Germany, and “young Kaliningraders already find it difficult to name the main Russian cities, including in such lists Klaipeda, Riga, Poznan, Rostok and Lubeck.
“This isn’t surprising,” Titov says. “Warsaw and Yurmala for these young people are closer and more familiar than Kaluga or Khabarovsk.” And their elders also reflect this sense of place: They speak about conditions “among them, in Russia” in much the same way they would talk about any other foreign country.
Increasingly too, he continues, Kaliningraders refer to their land not as Kaliningrad oblast but as the Amber kray and to their capital as Koenigsberg or more familiarly Koenig. That doesn’t please the authorities or “professional patriots” but it is the way things are. None of this means they want independence, but they seek real federalization and see this as their time.
Making concessions to Kaliningrad’s special situation seems entirely reasonable, Titov says, but “then a question arises: “If Kaliningrad can, why can’t Siberia? And just who is to say that it can’t?”
But interest in federalization is not limited to Siberia and Kaliningrad. There are regionalist movements in Karelia, Ingermanland, Novgorod and elsewhere, and they have now been joined by a new one: in Kuban. Activists there have announced plans to hold a march for the federalization of Kuban on August 17 to demand a separate republic be established for them.
Regional officials in Krasnodar have already refused to give them permission, but organizers say that they will go ahead anyway, citing their Constitutional right to freedom of assembly in order to demand their Constitutional rights for federalism.
From Moscow’s perspective, this is all very disturbing. Not only does it suggest that the center is losing control over the situation in at least some regions, but it raises the spectre of regional separatism of the kind that spread through the Russian Federation in the early 1990s and that Vladimir Putin has worked hard to suppress.
Moreover, it raises questions about the dangers Moscow has brought on itself by its promotion of “federalism for export” in the case of Ukraine, especially since what Moscow has been seeking there is not devolution of powers from Kyiv but in fact separatism and a change of state borders.
In a commentary on Politcom.ru, Konstantin Yemelyanov notes that the organizers of these actions “undoubtedly are trying to use the Kremlin’s weapon against it: not long ago, for example, the theme of the federalization of Ukraine was the public basis of Russian policy toward a neighboring country, and the Russian foreign ministry highlighted all the benefits” of such arrangements.
“A political provocation which formally does not contradict Russian law but hits the weak places of Russian public policy is becoming one of the types of political participation and self-expression for the opposition.” Given the memories of those now in power about 1991, that is a truly frightening “spectre.”