Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Colonial Approach Alienating Ever More Siberians

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 19 – Over the course of the last 150 years, ever more Siberians have come to see themselves as a colony of European Russia, one seized by force, subjected to “more or less open genocide,” deprived of natural resources, and now, under Vladimir Putin, even denied the right to elect their own regional leaders.
But despite that, the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union and especially the independence of Ukraine mean, according to a leading political analyst in Irkutsk, that “a majority” of Siberia’s residents view the secession of their territory as “a certain national catastrophe” (
Because that is so, Dmitry Tayevskiy argues in an essay posted online yesterday, most Moscow officials assume that they have nothing to worry about from that direction and do not realize that under certain conditions, Siberians, who have no real affection or respect for the center, could turn on the Russian capital and seek independence.
Indeed, “in the event of the appearance of a systemic crisis in Russia,” the commentator suggests, “the chances for the collapse of the country and its conversion into a conglomerate of petty principalities on the model of the former Yugoslavia are extremely great as is the probability that a civil war could occur.”
As of now, however, Moscow officials assume that they have nothing to worry about from those they classify as ethnic Russians. And consequently, just like their Soviet predecessors, they are “burying their heads in the sand, supposing that they have managed to avoid this danger.”
There are a few Siberian intellectuals who argue that the region should pursue independence now, but there is a far larger and more influential group who say that the region’s immediate goal should be the achievement of a new deal in its relations with Moscow, one that would leave its residents with more resources and more control.
The only counter-argument Moscow has come up with so far besides the threat of a use of force, Tayevskiy says, is the threat that an aggressive outside power would take over. But it is highly improbable that China would ever do so, and the alternatives are not so frightening when one thinks about them.
On the one hand, “theoretically” Siberia could “repeat the fate of Australia, preserving the language and culture of the metropolitan but at the same time getting full independence.” Indeed, he argues, “the chances of Siberia in such a scenario are much higher than Australia’s were.”
And on the other, it might become another Alaska and be subsumed within the United States. But while that might mean its language would become a mix of Russian and English, such a shift would also mean a higher standard of living for its residents and the reduction of the rest of Russia to a second-rate power.
Given what the departure of Siberia would mean to Russia, however small the risk of that is today, Tayevskiy says, it is surprising that few in Moscow devote much attention to this possibility or consider what to do to prevent it and instead to focus on the supposed threat to the Russian Federation of pan-Mongolism.
That notion, which Tayevskiy dismisses as “mythologized,” holds that the Buddhist peoples of southern Siberia and the Far East – the Tuvins, the Buryats, the Mongols and Tibetans – will come together to form a new and powerful country that will threaten everyone in Eurasia.
As absurd as it may seem, he says, some in Moscow have told him that should “the Mongols” try, the Russian government would starve them out by cutting the Trans-Siberian -- a threat that these same people fail to notice means that supporters of such a project could be do the same against Russia.
Moscow’s focus on a threat that does not exist rather than on one that could quickly emerge, Tayevskiy concludes, shows that the Russian government is likely to continue to behave toward Siberia in ways that will cause ever more of the people living there think seriously about a future for themselves independent of the Russian Federation.

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