Vienna, July 19 – Transbaikal residents overwhelmingly identify themselves as “Siberians” regardless of their ethnicity, a new survey shows. And while most would settle for greater autonomy, a significant share says that they would welcome independence should the Russian Federation dissolve in the future.
In an article provocatively titled “Will the Russian Federation Survive Until 2014?” Vitaly Kamyshev, a “Sibiryak” himself, reports that Irkutsk’s “Who’s Who” Agency determined that 80 percent of residents there identify as “Siberians” while only 12 percent say they are “Russians” (http://www.apn.ru/publications/print17435.htm).
The same poll also found that approximately three Transbaikal residents out of five want greater autonomy for Siberia as a whole and that one in four – some 25 percent – are for a Siberia independent of the Russian Federation. (Unfortunately, Kamyshev does not give details on exactly when this poll was conducted or how many it queried.)
One reason for this perhaps surprising choice is the campaign by local Siberian activists to promote the ideas of 19th century “oblastniki” like Grigoiy Potanin and Nikolai Yadrintsev, who argued that Russia treated “Siberia as a colony,” and thus to gain seats for themselves in local legislatures, the last place where real electoral politics occur.
But to far greater extent, this striking shift in self-identifications is an obvious reaction to three policies of President Vladimir Putin. First, his re-centralization of power and his reduction in the size of inter-regional transfers have re-ignited long-simmering tensions between Moscow and the regions.
Second, Putin himself has unwittingly put regionalism in play by his efforts to combine existing federal units into new and larger ones, a process by which he clearly hopes to push out the ethnic dimension of Russian federalism. In Siberia and the Russian Far East, five small regions are now set to be combined with larger ones.
On the one hand, that has the effect of undermining the importance of ethnicity as Putin wants, at least in some cases, but only at the cost of leading non-Russian elites to seek new accords on a regional basis with Russian ones, an effort that by itself makes regional identities more important than ethnic ones.
On the other, by putting the question of the borders of regions into play again, Putin has unintentionally encouraged others especially in places far from Moscow to think about how they would redraw the political map of the Russian Federation in order to maximize their power.
Elites in Khabarovsk kray, for example, having gotten approval to absorb two numerically small non-Russian areas, now talk openly about a greater Khabarovsk that would both become the largest federal unit in the country and have much greater influence in national politics.
And third, Putin has sought to downplay ethnic Russian identity as well by promoting the non-ethnic “Rossiyane” as the future civic nation the Russian president says the country must have given its ethnic divisions. That does not satisfy many ethnic Russians or many ethnic non-Russians, and regionalism may become the choice of both.
Now as in the past, Moscow has sought to limit the rise of Siberian identity by playing up what it says is the threat of Chinese colonization of the region. But that argument, Kamyshev says, may be wearing thin: Ever more people in Siberia believe they are a colony already and some think they would be better off with a different master.
None of this, of course, is to say that Siberian regionalism as either an identity or a movement is strong enough to pose any immediate threat to Moscow. But it is to suggest that downplaying ethnicity as Putin has done may not translate directly and without any problems into Russian patriotism.
Instead, as this Irkutsk poll suggests, many who others view as members of particular nationalities or as inevitable “Rossiyane” may decide to view themselves in regionalist terms, a development that could pose serious challenges for Russia’s development not only in 2014 but perhaps much sooner.