Baku, March 14 – The Russian government should proceed to dismantle all the non-Russian ethnic republics and districts and divide the country into 50 states, the deputy chairman of the country’s Federation Council says, or it will risk even more ethno-territorial conflicts than the 2,000 President Vladimir Putin recently referred to.
In a wide-ranging interview published in Politicheskiy zhurnal, Aleksandr Torshin, who earlier served as the Yeltsin government’s liaison with the Duma and then represented Mari El in the upper house, argued among many other things that Putin’s regional amalgamation plan is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough.
And consequently, Torshin’s argument merits attention at least as one of the positions senior people in Moscow are taking on this issue as Dmitry Medvedev assumes the presidency and possibly as an indication of the direction he will take the country
That is all the more likely because Torshin presents his case in a calm and historically grounded way, an approach very different from the typically emotional outbursts of some Russian nationalists about this issue, even though the steps he proposes are certain to be opposed by non-Russian groups.
Throughout Russian history, Torshin observes, “the administrative division of Russia has been very mobile and varied.” Indeed, what people currently call “an asymmetrical federation has always existed.” But over time, technological and political change has made unity more important.
And while “the wealth of cultures and nations is part of our superiority” compared to other countries, “however paradoxical it may seem, “the national-territorial division [of the Russian Federation] must be suppressed” to allow for the further development and flowering of the regions.”
Such a process will inevitably take a long time, Torshin says, adding that he had no desire to begin a “wild” redrawing of the borders. Instead, this goal should be pursued by education and referenda, a procedure that is totally appropriate because Russia’s Constitution makes no mention of “the national-territorial principle.”
The only time it is even implied, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council points out, is in the list of the names of the Federal subjects. And that is appropriate because at the end of the day, everyone living in that country must consider himself “above all a citizen of Russia” and only secondarily “a Tatar, a Russian, a Chechen…”
But in addition to this constitutional-ideological issue, there are three other reasons Torshin lists that make it important to move away from ethnic statehood within the Russian Federation. First, the existing division of the country interferes with the development of the economy and especially transportation.
Second, as Putin pointed out, the existing territorial divisions support “about 2,000 potential internal territorial conflicts.” But Torshin continues, “if you consider the matter more closely there are more than 3,000,” and that number will increase still further “if we begin again to divide the country into ethnic apartments.”
And third, he notes, in many of these ethno-territorial units, “the titular nation is a minority,” even though the territory bears its name. The majority in such cases consists of Russians, and because of their role as “the cement” that holds “the more than 150 peoples” living in that country, this is inappropriate and wrong.
Asked by “Politicheskiy zhurnal” whether he was not concerned that an effort to achieve what he seeks would cause a rebirth of “nationalist forces” in republics that would be “ready to demand separation from Russia,” Torshin stressed that his ideas were not yet on “the order of today” now or anytime soon.
He suggested that any “initiative” for these changes should come from the regions themselves, whose people will gradually “grow beyond” national-territorial divisions, a process that he suggested globalization and increased migration would inevitably push forward.
Torshin said that specialists disagree on how many federal units should be left – there are now slightly more than 80. He said that in his opinion, Russia with a territory roughly equal that of the United States but a population only half as large, there ought to be 50 federal subjects.
(It is worth recalling that on the very day the presidents of the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarus met to put an end to the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed dividing that entity into 50 states, the latest in a long line of Russians, beginning with the Decembrists in 1825, who have wanted to copy American federalist arrangements.)
Yet another intriguing difference in Torshin’s arguments from the ones many Russian nationalists make is that he comes out as a full-fledged defender of federalism. “Russia was, is and for a longtime into the future will be a federative state,” albeit one in which the meaning of that term continues to evolve.
Because of the reasonable tone Torshin adopts, some who read this interview will not realize what a serious attack it is on the rights and prerogatives of the non-Russians who make up a quarter of the population of that country, an attack that threatens their survival as separate and distinct ethnic communities.
Those nations inside the Russian Federation, like those within the former Soviet Union, that were not allowed to have their own ethno-territorial units, however weak these often have been, have generally declined in number and vitality, while those who have them have done significantly better in most cases.
Consequently, what seems entirely reasonable to Torshin and perhaps many others who are members of dominant communities in fact is precisely the kind of challenge many minorities will see as a direct threat to their existence and one that they will, to the best of their abilities, resist as much as they can.