Friday, April 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Medvedev Must Address Putin's Shortcomings on Nationalities, Federalism

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 25 – Whether he wants to or not, incoming Russian president Dmitry Medvedev will have to address some serious shortcomings in Vladimir Putin's approach to nationality problems and federal relations or risk a coming together of ethnic and regional challenges that could tear his country apart, according to a leading Moscow commentator.
In the current issue of Russia in Global Politics, Ivan Sukhov, who writes regularly for "Vremya novostey," argues that Putin's efforts to unify the country's legal space, limit the power of regional elites, and combat the most dangerous consequences of anti-minority prejudices have not achieved "what was desired" (
First, Putin's system of presidential plenipotentiaries "in the overwhelming majority of cases" has not worked (except in the Southern Federal District)," Sukhov says, and at the end of Putin's term has turned out to be "a phantom" rather than a transforming political institution as he and his backers so clearly hoped.
Second, Putin's decision to make governors appointed rather than elected also has not worked as he intended. On the one hand, this shift has taken these officials "out of the field of public policy and shifted it into the sphere of behind the scenes intrigue." And on the other, by personalizing these relationships, shifts in power at the center can trigger problems in the regions.
Third, the current Russian president's effort to use United Russia to build relations with the regions has failed as well, Sukhov says, with last year's parliamentary elections being challenged in many non-Russian areas as fundamentally dishonest and the party's statements showing that it is a movement without a program.
Fourth, Putin's much-ballyhooed program to promote tolerance, launched in 2000, has failed to achieve its announced goals. Indeed, Sukhov points out, the only thing that "remains" from it is "a website and a 'bouquet' of individual educational projects" that do more to help the NGOs who participate in them than Russian society as a whole.
And fifth, Putin has failed to understand a fundamental reality of contemporary Russia: Non-Russian groups are more supportive of the continued existence of the Russian Federation than are many ethnic Russian regions, whose residents increasingly identify themselves in terms of these regions, the corporations which dominate them, or neighboring states.
Indeed, Sukhov suggests, it is not too much to say, as others have as well, that Putin's preferred "model" of relations between the center and the regions is precisely Chechnya, where the Russian government has given Ramzan Kadyrov almost unlimited power locally in exchange for declarations of undying loyalty and keeping things quiet.
Under Putin, the only real constraints on the Chechen president's behavior have come not from Moscow but from Rosneft. Both Putin and Kadyrov recognize just where those limits are so that they have not had to come into play all that often, according to the "Vremya novostey" commentator.
"Such a situation is undoubtedly incomparably better than any attempt at building on the territories of Chechnya and Daghestan of an independent Islamic state," Sukhov acknowledges. "It is remarkably better than large-scale military actions … But it hardly testifies to the reestablishment in Chechnya of a legal order corresponding to the Russian Constitution."
Consequently, the Moscow analyst continues, "the new president will have to build anew relations with the regions" Russian and non-Russian alike. "And it will only be better if [these relations] acquire formal and institutional frameworks and do not remain a congeries of behind-the-scenes agreements."
Putin was under very little pressure to do this, Sukhov argues. As long as he kept things quiet enough for them to pursue their lives, they paid little attention to his nationality policy. The only exception concerned their increasing anger about the arrival of large numbers of non-Russian migrants in traditionally Russian cities.
But, Sukhov continues, Medvedev is unlikely to have that luxury. Russian regionalism, some territorially and others on the basis of corporations which control many regions, is growing, tensions between Russians and non-Russians are on the rise, and the "Chechen" solution looks ever less satisfactory to many not only in Grozny but in Moscow as well.
Amalgamating regions, a Putin policy Medvedev appears likely to continue, is not a solution, Sukhov says. Most regional elites either do not understand why Moscow should be doing this or actively oppose it. And allowing ethnic violence to continue to grow, as a laissez faire approach to nationalities almost certainly would allow, is not really an option.
Sukhov ends his article with an appeal increasingly heard in recent months: The next Russian president should reestablish the Ministry for Nationality Affairs that Putin disbanded in 2002. While that would not solve all the problems, it would force the country's elite to recognize that "Russian long ago ceased to be Soviet and is step by step becoming ever less Russian."

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