Friday, June 15, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Siberian Regionalists Hope to Push Their Cause -- at the Municipal Level

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 15 – Many people in Siberia and the Russian Far East believe that their region should enjoy greater autonomy or even independence from Moscow, but for most of the last century, their attitudes about this have remained largely unfocused rather than taking on an organized political form.
As a result, most analysts in Moscow and the West have long dismissed Siberian regionalism – or “oblastnichestvo” as it is called in Russian – as only an intensified form of the local particularism found elsewhere in the Russian Federation or, at most, the reflection of the ideas of a small coterie of intellectuals and politicians.
In any case, the central Russian government has typically found it easy to undercut this trend, preventing its emergence by means of a variety of carrots – making massive investments in the region – and sticks – dividing up this region politically and marginalizing anyone there who expresses “oblastnik” attitudes too openly.
But now there are growing indications that Siberian regionalism may be gaining traction not only as an idea that some senior officials and many ordinary people in Siberia and the Far East endorse but also as a movement that is operating in various cities of that region and thus has remained beyond Moscow’s attention.
In an article posted yesterday on an Irkutsk web portal, Mikhail Kulekhov traces the recent history of regionalist ideas there and suggests that today’s “oblastniki” have adopted a strategy that could lead to the emergence of a powerful regionalist movement(
At the end of the 1960s, he writes, Ivan Naymushkin, head of Bratskesstroi, gained so much power that he sat in the Soviet council of ministers and openly advocated the creation of a Baikal SSR which would unite Irkutsk and Chita oblasts, the Buryat ASSR, the Evenk Autonomous District, and part of Yakutia.
But after Naymushkin’s unexplained death in a helicopter crash in September 1973, support for this idea receded and did not resurface until Gorbachev’s time. Then, Kulekhov continues, people again began to talk about a Baikal Republic, an idea that was cut short by the end of the USSR.
In October 1993, at the time of Boris Yeltsin’s clash with the old parliament in Moscow, the leaders of most of the republics, oblasts, krays and republics declared the Russian president’s actions to be illegitimate, thus providing evidence of their unity but also serving as a wake-up call for Moscow to act against them.
But by the late 1990s, Siberian autonomy had become part of the programs of the majority of political groupings in Eastern Siberia: the Socialist Club, the Baikal Anarchist Union, and the Baikal People’s Front. And in 1998, a small group of activists – Kulekhov among them -- formed something called “the Liberation Army of Siberia.”
This trend attracted Moscow’s attention: On the one hand, the central government banned regional parties; and on the other the FSB insisted that the OAS change its name. The latter did, but to keep its initials, its leaders decided to call it the Oblastnik Alternative of Siberia, a group that works closely with the Baikal People’s Front.
More recently, Siberian regionalists were cheered, Kulekhov notes, when Irkutsk head Aleksandr Tishanin declared in 2006 “We are all one Siberian nation” and when the heads of the Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Chita oblasts, as well as of the Khakass and Buryat republics criticized Moscow on behalf of Siberian interests.
Kulekhov almost certainly exaggerates how much these remarks reflect oblastnik views, but the sense among many in the Russian Far East that Moscow is far away and not especially interested in this region is beyond any doubt growing. Indeed, it may be exacerbated by President Putin’s decision to appoint outsiders to key posts there.
But however that may be, the oblastniki, Kulekhov says, have decided that they can best advance their cause by taking an active part in upcoming municipal elections, votes that take place below Moscow’s radar screen and the last places in the region where outcomes reflect the vote of the people rather than the choice of the Kremlin.

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