Friday, March 30, 2007

Window on Eurasia: ‘Extremely Dangerous’ Nationality Problems Await Putin’s Successor

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 30 – Vladimir Putin’s successor as president -- or Putin himself if he remains in office -- will be forced to address the Russian Federation’s state structures because “the current semi-centralized, semi-federal and semi-confederative state” cannot function effectively, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an essay posted online yesterday, Mikhail Diunov argues that the development of the Russian Federation since 1991 did not go in one direction under former President Boris Yeltsin and a different one under Putin but rather in three different and ultimately mutually inconsistent directions (
After the collapse of the USSR, Diunov continues, Russia itself might have disintegrated, but it was saved by “the commonality of interests of regional elites in dividing up state property” and “the willingness of the central government to yield practically any amount of power” to the regions.
But this did not lead to a consistent decentralization of the political system but rather to “a strange state formation in which ethnic Russian territories continued to be administered as in a unitary state” while “for ethnic state formations and especially those having the status of republics, a regime was set up that resembled a confederation.”
That created an “extremely dangerous” situation, especially since Russian regions had to pay for what the poorer non-Russian regions wanted to do. Not only did that put Russians at a disadvantage, but it has led some Russians to think about ending that arrangement or even getting rid of these regions, much in the same way as Moscow rid itself of the expensive Central Asian republics in 1991.
But at the same time, Putin’s effort to reestablish an effective “power vertical” not only did not fully address this problem, Diunov says, but his efforts caused many non-Russians to conclude that his policies would eliminate their advantages. And that in turn has led many of them to resist the center or in a few cases consider leaving.
This creates a problem that Putin or his successor will have to address lest it grow worse and threaten the country with mounting inter-ethnic tensions between Russians and non-Russians and, “if the necessary steps are not taken,” Diunov adds, lead to the possible collapse of the state itself.
Diunov argues that Putin or his successor must establish “a genuine federal state” in place of the existing one in which unitarism, federalism and confederalism coexist. That will not be easy, he acknowledges, but he suggests several steps that a Russian leader should consider in order to avoid disaster.
First of all, Diunov says, “the status of non-Russian state formations [within the Russian Federation] must be unified,” with all national republics “ receiving the status of oblasts” in which their residents can have all the national-cultural autonomy they are capable of paying for on their own.
“Federalism,” he continues, “in a contemporary state cannot be based on the nationality principle.” Countries that have tried it – including India, Spain and Belgium, not to speak of the former Soviet Union – find that it embeds “a slow-acting mine” under their state structures.
Second, he says, all the country’s oblasts regardless of the ethnic composition of their populations should be made subordinate to a smaller number of federal districts, which alone would be subjects of the federation. Such a move would simplify the country’s structure and make a federation more likely to emerge.
Such an arrangement is especially necessary for a country like the Russian Federation, Diunov adds, because a large number of its republics have Muslim populations that might be manipulated by foreign forces hostile to Moscow and its interests.
And third, Diunov says, a future Russian president will be forced to come up with a solution to the following problem: “the presence on Russia of territories which do not want to remain within it.” Provocatively, Diunov argues that a future president will have to ask whether it is “worthwhile” for Moscow to try to hold on to such territories.
Some of these territories, including perhaps Chechnya, will simply go their own way once the Russian authorities stop being willing to throw good money after bad, Diunov continues, but others might be satisfied with some kind of half way house like the Bukharan khanate or Khivan emirate under the Russian Empire.
Those two states existed as protectorates within Russia, but because the central authorities neither directly intervened on most questions nor paid for what the governments there wanted to do, the two regimes were willing to live under such an arrangement, viewing it as a compromise that worked for their interests.
Diunov’s basic message is that non-Russians must pay their own way for anything they want be it special cultural institutions, broader autonomy, or even independence in order to end the current arrangement under which richer Russian regions in fact subsidize non-Russian institutions.
The Moscow commentator sees this as a way out, but in fact, the steps he recommends would likely produce exactly what he says they are prepared to avoid: heightened tensions between ethnic Russians and non-Russians and ultimately the disintegration of the country in the relatively near term.

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