Baku, February 9 – Three events over the last ten days suggest that Moscow wants the regions and municipalities of the Russian Federation to play a greater role in the elaboration of religious and nationality policies, a reversal of the center’s position in recent years and one that could promote the further differentiation of the country.
On February 1, Education Minister Andrei Fursenko told a meeting in Novocherkassk that local and regional governments should work with religious groups in their areas to develop school courses that could promote “the spiritual and moral training” of the young (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=22670).
Fursenko did not say but his audience certainly understands that such a region by region approach to this highly sensitive issue might get Moscow off the hook politically in the short term but only at the price of ever greater cultural and religious differentiation of the country.
In some places, like Belgorod, regional officials are already working hand-in-glove with the Russian Orthodox Church, and in others, like Chechnya, the government is requiring Islamic instruction in the schools – even though in both places, there are members of other faiths or no faith at all whose Constitutional rights are being ignored.
If Fursenko’s proposal is acted upon, other regions would be tempted to play to the largest local group rather than adopt a religion- or nationality-blind approach. Not only would that exacerbate tensions within regions, but it would create new conflicts among them, a development that could weaken Moscow’s control.
Then on February 5, Vladimir Zorin, the former minister for ethnic and religious policy who now is the Presidential plenipotentiary in the Volga, told a Moscow roundtable that local and regional governments must adapt general policies to local conditions if the country is to make progress (http://azerros.ru/index.php/articles/2105).
“Russian laws permit organs of local administration to spend budget funds on the carrying out of ethno-cultural programs,” he pointed out, a provision that allows officials at those levels to increase their “role in the realization of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional relations.”
Indeed, he said, “a stable multi-national state” requires the joint efforts of government organs at all levels, institutions of civil society and national and religious organizations.” If even one of these groups is not involved, Zorin concluded, “nationality policy cannot be developed” as it should.
And then today and tomorrow, the Ministry of Regional Development is holding an all-Russian conference on “Government-Confessional Relations in the Regions of Russia: The Experience of Social Partnership and the Prevention of Religion-Political Extremism” (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=22746).
According to the ministry’s press service, “the goal of the conference is to discuss the practice of joint work by the organs of government power of the subjects of the Russian Federation and religious organizations” and the ways that cooperation between them can promote tolerance and prevent extremism from emerging.
The meeting is scheduled to be addressed by a large group of officials from both Moscow and the regions, and while none of their comments has yet been published, this meeting too appears intended to send a message that the Russian government wants the regions to play a greater role and is prepared to tolerate more inter-regional variations.
If these meetings are not simply an accidental conjunction and the arguments about a greater regional role in this policy not simply the product of the nature of these particular sessions, there are three possible explanations for what appears to be a trend very much at odds with Russian policy making under Vladimir Putin.
First, Moscow must be sufficiently worried about the rising tide of interethnic tensions and even violence across the country that it is looking for allies in the fight against it and has decided to turn to those officials who are closest to the situation for assistance.
Second, some officials both in Moscow and in the regions may be taking advantage of the uncertainties inevitable even in such a managed transition as the one from Putin to Medvedev to push their own ideas in the hopes that the new president may pick up on them as he seeks to demonstrate that he is in some sense at least his own man.
And third, these proposals may reflect the further rise of Dmitry Kozak, who as regional development minister has oversight responsibilities here and who, as his recent proposal to divide the country into ten new economic zones shows, is not shy about trying out even radical ideas.
But whatever the explanation, at least some regional and local officials are certain to pick up on these ideas in order to boost their own power if nothing else. And that in turn means that the regions and the municipalities are likely to be the seen of more real politics than most of them have been in the final years of Putin’s second term.