Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Siberian ‘Economic Separatism’ a Greater Threat to Moscow than Political Kind

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 25 – Even though it generally receives far less attention than the more romantic “political” kind, economic separatism in Siberia is currently a far greater threat to Moscow’s interests, according to an analysis that appears in the latest issue of “Nashe vremya.”
Historian Andrei Burovskiy notes that Siberian regionalism based on the idea of “a Siberian nation’” is once again abroad across that enormous region, but he argues that one needs both to trace the origins of this political trend and to consider the various forms it includes (http://www.gazetanv.ru/article/?id=1043).
Siberian political separatism, the notion that Siberians constitute a separate nation, that they are a colony of the center, and that they should have an independent state, of course, has its origins in the “oblastnichestvo” movement of the 19th century, Burovskiy argues.
But if the ideas of the “oblastniki” – usually translated as Siberian regionalists -- were attractive intellectually, they proved to be politically weak when members of this group attempted – and quickly failed – to set up a Provisional Siberian Government during the Russian civil war.
On the one hand, Burovskiy points out, there was no ethnic basis for a single Siberian “nation.” Instead, most people there identified first of all as Russian or as members of an indigenous. And on the other, almost all other political leaders viewed Siberia as an integral part of the Russian state.
During Gorbachev’s time and especially after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, there was a brief revival of Siberian political separatism, Burovskiy points out, but the same factors that made its goals unrealistic almost a century earlier prevented it from gaining any real political traction.
That has led to a certain smug self-satisfaction among political leaders in Moscow who continue to assume that they can do what they like in and to Siberia without taking into consideration the attitudes and views of the people who live there. But that view of the situation is profoundly mistaken, Burovskiy suggests.
The reason for that conclusion, the historian says, is that “another kind of separatism,” one based on economics rather than politics, emerged in the 1970s and has become even more important in the years since the end of the Soviet Union.
Not based on a posited identity or an imagined history, this new kind of Siberian separatism is based on the “simple notion” that “Siberia gives the Center almost all that it extracts from the ground and manufactures” while in return the Center gives Siberia only a microscopic fraction back.
In Soviet times, Burovskiy reports, he had experience with a most cruel form of this “exchange.” In Moscow it was possible to buy sausages made in Achinsk, but in neighboring Siberian cities, such a basic food was invariably either not on the shelves or in very short supply.
Since 1991, this situation has in some ways become worse, Burovskiy says; at the very least, it has become far more often the object of intense discussions in the media, at least in Siberian cities.
Moscow’s policies under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, Burovskiy continues, have been to extract whatever was most profitable to the Moscow financial industrial groups, to allow the unprofitable sectors to die, and to allow social conditions across Siberia to deteriorate more or less quickly.
“Economic separatism” in Siberia starts from the proposition that “Siberia has the right to a greater percentage of its wealth than is being left to it today,” a share of wealth that will make possible “the resolution of the problems” of that region by its own political leaders.
If most Siberian regionalists in the past viewed their area “only and exclusively within the framework of the Russian Empire,” the historian argues, those who back “economic separatism” today view Siberia as “something self-sufficient and thus potentially independent.”
And these economic separatists ask, “if the territory can be self-sufficient, why must it give away all that it has? And even more than it has?”
Such “separatism” is not as immediately frightening as the political kind: It does not involve ethnic antagonisms, it is not necessarily about independence, and it even opens the way for more economic development within the eastern portions of the Russian Federation as a whole.
But that does not mean it does not threaten Moscow’s earnings and power in a more insidious way, Burovskiy suggests. And he then recounts the probably legendary exchange between Tatar President Mintimir Shaimiyev and Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin concerning power sharing between Kazan and Moscow.
In pressing his case, Shaimiyev pressed Yeltsin to make concessions by asking “So you perhaps want another Chechnya?” The Siberians might be tempted to say something similar, Burovskiy says, and thus it is far from clear that Siberian “separatism” unlike the political kind will not be successful in the future.

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