Vienna, July 5 – President Vladimir Putin’s continuing efforts to re-centralize state power has had a far greater impact on the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krays than on the non-Russian republics and, as a result, are generating a separatist backlash among those the Kremlin leader has assumed are his natural allies.
In an article posted on the APN.ru website today, Moscow analyst Rem Latypov explains why he believes this is so, why this particular development could prove even more threatening to Moscow than non-Russian nationalism, and what the Kremlin can and should do to counter it (http://www.apn.ru/publications/print17368.htm).
In his effort to reconstruct “the power vertical” that had been destroyed during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Latypov suggests, Putin has pursued a seven-prong strategy. First, he reformed the Federation Council to weaken the leaders of the regions and republics.
Second, he created the seven Federal Districts and appointed plenipotentiary representatives who were to serve as his proconsuls in these larger areas. Third, he abolished the elections of regional leaders thereby limiting their authority. Fourth, he also eliminated most federal ministries charged with supervising regional issues.
Fifth, Putin insisted on a common legal space across the country, using his powers to bring the legislation of the regions and republics into line with federal law. Sixth, he promoted the expansion of Moscow and St. Petersburg economic groups into the regions to undermine the power bases of the regional leaders.
And seventh, he used the powers of the prosecutor’s offices not only to take control of key institutions by charging those in his way with crimes but also by creating a climate resembling the Soviet past in which everyone could be charged with some violation and thus could not be secure in his person or position.
All these approaches, Latypov argues, hit the regions where ethnic Russians formed the majority far harder than the non-Russian republics. Moscow officials and businessmen found it harder to penetrage the economies of the non-Russian areas. And the center often made concessions to them lest they move in a Chechnya-like direction.
Naturally, such policies, and especially the fact that the leaders of ethnic Russian regions feel that they suffer unequal treatment compared to non-Russian areas, could not fail to generate a backlash against Moscow, one that in many cases takes the form of “separatist inclinations.”
Disturbingly, Latypov continues, this trend resembles all too closely what happened to the Soviet Union 16 years ago. That country collapsed “in the first instance” because the elites of the republics were furious about Moscow’s efforts to rein them in and concluded that they could do better without central supervision.
Now, he argues, “an anti-imperialist discourse” has been adopted by people who typically refer to themselves and are referred to by others as “regionalists” or “confederalists,” who believe that “traditionally Russian regions have been deprived of freedom and independence.”
Some of these people are even beginning to talk about the formation of a “Rus’ Confederacy” or to consider the ideas of NORN, a radical extremist group that argues Russians should secede from the Russian Federation in order to create a genuine nation state of, for, and by Russians alone.
So far, these attitudes have not crystallized into a movement and thus do not represent any immediate threat, Latypov says. But it is entirely possible that if the regime continues to act as it has, it will find itself in “a dead end,” a place where it won’t be able to draw support from either Russian or non-Russian groups.
What should Moscow do? Latypov has an answer, but it is not one that many around Putin will find comforting or even acceptable. He suggests that “the success of ‘counter-separatist measures’ is possible only” under one condition: Such measures must “fulfill the task that separatism sets for itself.”
That is, these measures must give the regions defined in terms of administrative units rather than national-territorial ones real powers and a real voice because if they do not, then the country itself will again be at risk, however much Putin and his supporters talk about a new age of stability.
Moving in that direction will not be easy, Latypov says. On the one hand, there will be those who will see any concession as an encouragement to demand more powers for the regions up to and including secession from the Russian Federation, much as the union republics did in 1991.
And on the other, such a change in direction will appear to some as kowtowing to the pro-Western model of federalism that the Yeltsin era typified, one that also could threaten the territorial integrity of the state not so much by generating demands for secession but by creating a central government incapable of reining them in.
Even if Putin decides to make this change, Latypov concludes, it will not be “a panacea for all the problems and crisis factors which threaten Russia.” But he says, “it is the single obvious way out of the dead end which the country has in recent times been driven into.”