Without Real Federalism, Some Russian Regions Will Pursue Secession, Moscow Analyst Says

June 3, 2014
Photo by Mikhail Kononin

Staunton, 3 June – The Ukrainian crisis and Moscow’s insistence on the federalization of that country have “awakened the interest of Russian society in federalism,” with some predominantly ethnic Russian regions and territories now as committed to achieving real federalism in Russia as any of the non-Russian republics.

And if Moscow does not agree to living up to the federalism enshrined in the Russian constitution, there is a very real chance that some of them either singly or in groups will seek to secede from the country, a challenge that the central authorities have largely ignored on the assumption that only the non-Russian republics present any such threat.

In an essay on Nazaccent.ru yesterday, Ulyana Ivanova argues that recent events in Ukraine have for many Russians “yet again demonstrated that a unitary state is not in a position to deal with the contradictions between the center and the regions,” regardless of the ethnic composition of the population.

Most specialists agree, she writes, that Russia “made the correct choice” by putting a federal model in place in 1991 in order “to preserve the integrity of the country.” One of its additional advantages was shown by the ease of the annexation of Crimea: “Any federation is a union which is able to accept those who want to join if they correspond to certain requirements.”

“On the other hand,” Ivanova continues, “the very essence of federalism – the division of power between the center and the regions for more effective administration” is very much an issue in Russia. Some see the system as “a fiction” because in their opinion, the central authorities in fact directly order the regions as to what economic and social policy is to be conducted.

However that may be and however much Russians may want to block ethnic separatism, “there is nothing good in excessive centralization,” Ivanova says. “If territories are not allowed to exercise self-administration, then they will be begin to seek it” regardless of their ethnic composition, either because they oppose central policies or don’t want to “’feed’” other regions.

The classical example of regionalism growing over into separatism is provided by the Siberian oblastniki [regionalists] of the nineteenth century. They were true regionalists, but because the center treated their demands for more local control as extremist, some of them began to turn to separatism usually as a tactic but sometimes as a real goal.

One characteristic of this shift was the promotion of the idea that those most had long assumed to be ethnic Russians like any others were in fact a distinct identity, in this case, “Sibiryaks.” Nikolay Yadrintsev, one of the leading oblastniki in his book Siberia as a Colony, went so far as to contrast the Siberian to “the Russian man.”

But because it was “obvious” to most that “the Siberians remained Russian in spirit and culture,” the regionalists “never played ‘the ethnic card.’” As Grigory Potanin, another oblastnik put it, people like him “used separatism not as a goal but as a means.” But the imperial authorities did not make that distinction.

They viewed the Siberian regionalists as secessionists and even labelled the case against them “Concerning the Separation of Siberia from Russia and the Formation of a Republic like the United States.”

That had one curious consequence, Ivanova says. After the oblastniki were convicted, the imperial authorities were unsure were to exile them given that the usual place of exile was Siberia. Finally, they decided to exile Potanin to the Sveaborg fortress on the Baltic and Yadrintsev to Arkhangelsk gubernia!

During the Russian Civil War, the oblastniki were briefly able to articulate a country of their own, but after the defeat of the White Movement, the Bolsheviks crushed them and refused to take into consideration any regionalist ideas in their national-territorial division of the Soviet Union.

“But today,” Ivanova points out, “certain scholars and politicians assert that the division of the country on an ethnic basis has lost its important and contains within itself a threat of ethnic separatism.” And they argue that the elimination of the non-Russian republics will thus eliminate any challenge to the center.

In some respects, their arguments “to a certain degree” recall those of the first Siberian regionalists, but that should be a wake-up call for the country because the nineteenth century history shows that regionalism can become separatism if the demands of its supporters are ignored or suppressed.

If Russia is to be a genuinely federal state, its leaders must recognize that doing away with the non-Russian republics does not have “any relation” to the issue of federalism because “today any oblast is an historically evolved region with its own social and economic ties, self-consciousness, and often territorial solidarity.”

Redrawing borders without taking the opinions of those who live in the areas involved is dangerous and wrong, Ivanova says. On the one hand, “the liquidation of republics could push national activists to struggle for independence” because they see these republics as the only guarantee of the survival of their peoples.

And on the other, it will only reinforce the growing importance of regionalism and of demands based on it. “The leaders of the territorial subjects of the federation,” Ivanova says, “ever more often are expressing their dissatisfaction about the preferences which the ethnically-based subjects have.”

But they are also unhappy about the failure of the center to live up to the constitutional requirements for federalism. This is having an interesting consequence: it is leading some regionalist leaders to promote the idea that regional identities are in fact or should be ethnic ones so that they can claim their rights.

The clearest example of this is again in Siberia. Despite official opposition, in the 2010 Russian census, 4,116 people declared themselves to be “Siberian” by nationality, 400 times as many as did so only eight years earlier. “It is quite obvious” from that, Ivanova concludes, that Russian federalism is going to be transformed and in way few expect.