Monday, July 23, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Russian Regions Nurture Secessionist Aspirations

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 23 – Although they have attracted little attention to date, residents and even officials in some predominantly Russian regions appear to be just as interested in asserting sovereignty or even seceding as are their counterparts in many of the non-Russian regions and republics of the Russian Federation.
In an article appearing in this week’s “Nashe vremya,” Aleksandr Gazov argues that it is a mistake to focus only on non-Russian secessionist challenges even though he concedes that “the main moving force of any ‘liberation movement’ is membership in a particular nationality” (
But there is no reason to think that one such “particular nationality” cannot be Russian, Gazov suggests, especially because the three major impulses for secession – anti-Moscow attitudes, a sense of the loss of historical status, and economic problems – can affect Russians just as much as non-Russians.
The “Nashe vremya” journalist then surveys some of what he suggests are the most intriguing examples of ethnic Russian secessionist ideas and movements before producing a ranking generated by a foreign human rights activist of the probabilities that any one of these or indeed of non-Russian challenges will succeed.
In the first instance, he points to secessionist groups in Novgorod, Pskov and Bryansk. In all three cases, local officials appear to be backing local intellectuals who argue that Moscow has taken something away from them: democracy in the case of Novgorod and economic opportunities in the case of Pskov and Bryansk.
Then, he considers nationalist and secessionist trends among non-Russian groups not only in the North Caucasus – the only region most Muscovites think there is any secessionist challenge at all – but also in the Middle Volga among the Tatars, Bashkirs, Komi, Mordvin, and Mari and in Siberia among the Sakha and Buryats.
Gazov also considers the interesting case of Karelia, an ethnic republic whose population is now overwhelmingly ethnic Russian rather than the titular Karels or Finns. He notes that a Petrozavodsk city deputy has called for erecting a statue of Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish leader who fought against Soviet forces.
And finally he examines three broader Russian secessionist groups: those who want to form a truly Russian republic by jettisoning all non-Russian areas within the Russian Federation, those who back a Urals Republic, and finally those who want Siberia to be an independent state.
In some of these places, Gazov says, secessionist ideas are discussed only on the Internet among small coteries of intellectuals. But in many and especially Siberia, there is evidence that increasingly powerful governors are intrigued by the idea of independence and covertly support groups who push ideas the governors themselves cannot do openly.
He writes: “today’s governors are welcome guests at all kinds of international events and are already accustomed to conduct foreign policy negotiations on their own. It is thus not surprising that in their minds arises the thought about an independent Siberia, free from Moscow, the Kremlin and the entire rest of the country.”
But of course, Gazov continues, even the most powerful of such governors recognize that they cannot at th epresent moment at least “speak openly about such things” but they have every reason not to prevent others from doing so – or even helping them from behind the scenes,
Another force standing behind any drive for Siberian independence is Beijing, which has long cast a covetous eye to the resources and open spaces of the country to its north, Gazov writes. And the Chinese appear to be providing some funds to get Russians to speak out in favor of this alternative.
“Already today,” Gazov continues, “in Irkutsk, Omsk and Novosibirsk ever more often are heard calls for more active cooperation with China which must become the chief ally of an independent Siberia.”
At the end of his article, Gazov reproduces an estimate prepared by Costa Rican human rights activist Maximiliano Herrera as to the probability that any region in Russia may secede in the long term. This list is, as Gazov notes, only one person’s opinion, but it is intriguing, and it has now been introduced to the Russian audience.
Herrera, who maintains his own website ( and whose complete list of the likelihood of secessionist challenges around the world can be found online as well (, gives the following estimates of the chances for successful secession by regions in Russia:
Adyrgeia – 15 percent, Bashkortostan – more than 20 percent, Eastern Siberia – 30 percent, Daghestan – 40 percent, Ingushetia – 35 percent, Kabardino-Balkaria –20 percent, Kaliningrad – 35 percent, Kamchatka –15 percent, Karachai-Cherkessia – 15 percent, Magadan – 15 percent, Mari El – 20 percent, Primorskiy kray – 20 percent, Sakhalin – 20 percent, North Osetia – more than 20 percent, Stavropol kray – 10 percent, Tatarstan – more than 40 percent, Tuva – 10 percent, Chechnya – 55 percent, Chukotka – 20 percent, and Sakha – 20 percent.
What is most intriguing about this list, of course, is that Russian regions appear as likely or even more likely than non-Russian ones to secede. That is Gazov’s point, but to date, few in Moscow or elsewhere are prepared to take that seriously or to think about reworking the country’s federal system in order to keep the country in one piece.

Greater St. Petersburg or Greater Ingermanland?

An example of the ebb and flow of these ideas is provided by the reaction to the July 6th suggestion by St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko that combining her city with Leningrad oblast would be a good idea, something that would increase the efficiency of government and promote Putin’s plan to reduce the number of federal units.
Those goals, plus Matvienko’s own interest in enhancing her power and authority at the expense of her politically weaker neighbor, probably are sufficient to explain her remark, which was after all in response to an interviewer’s question rather than being an argument she had chosen to make and thus carefully crafted for her audience.
But it did not take long for some writers to see her proposal as a step toward a northwestern Russia independent of Moscow’s control. Those opposed to the move recalled the April 2005 comment of Ilya Klebanov, the presidential plenopotentiary of the North-West Federal District.
At that time, the polpred shot down the possibility of combining the two federal subjects by saying: “One must be more careful from the political point of view. Having combined Petersburg and the oblast, we could potentially create a separate state” (
But others, including those who back the establishment of something called Greater Ingermanland, the name of that region before the times of Peter the Great, celebrated the idea as an important first step toward their own goal of precisely what Klebanov opposed (
By allowing Matvienko to make this proposal, representatives of this group said, “the Kremlin analysts are clearly underestimating the risk for themselves.” They simply do not understand, the Ingermanlanders argued, that “the unification of such structures will create a new geopolitical situation not only in Russia but also in Europe.”
“De fact this will appear not only ‘a new subject of the federation,’ but also an aspirant to the rank of ‘a European country of middle rank,’” one whose economic ties will be “closer to Europe than to Moscow” and thus potentially an independent country whose midwife could be a pro-Kremlin Russian politician.

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