Sunday, November 16, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Financial Crisis Provoking Regionalist and Separatist Challenges to Moscow

Paul Goble

Kuressaare, November 16 – As the economic crisis in Russia deepens, the leaders of many regions and republics are criticizing Moscow for failing to provide resources and the Russian government is lashing back charging these officials with failing to perform well, an exchange that has created situation in which regionalist and separatist challenges are growing.
The economic crisis, which Moscow so long denied, is now hitting the Kremlin’s “beloved” vertical of power, the portal says. Because Moscow cannot give the regions the resources it promised, the leaders of that latter find themselves in an increasingly difficult position with their own people (
And they are protecting themselves by starting “to criticize the center for its thieving policy relative to the provinces.” At the very least, the news agency’s analysts say, such attacks are both exacerbating and legitimizing anti-Moscow attitudes in many regions. And in some, there have begun to “be heard openly separatist declarations.
Not surprisingly, the government of Vladimir Putin has decided to strike back, announcing that it will provide resources to the regions according to how well each of them meets standards set by the center and creating a new governmental commission on regional policy headed by the prime minister himself.
The regions have been hit hard by Moscow’s inability to provide the funds it promised, with the main question before many of them being “how to survive” rather than “how to complete reforms” the central government has ordered but not provided the money they need to do so.
Next year, federal subventions to the regions appear likely to fall 10 to 20 percent, an enormous sum. In Tyumen, for instance, no officials have figured how to cope with a decline in oil taxes now approaching 10 billion rubles (380 million U.S. dollars). Problems of a similar scale are hitting Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk.
To no one’s surprise, those criticizing Moscow the most are regional leaders who were elected rather than appointed to their posts and who have frequently demonstrated their willingness to make use of nationalism to defend their position against the center and advance their republics’ interests.
Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev in an extraordinary message to his republic’s State Council last week noted that “the crisis has already touched the Tatar economy,” something for which he blamed Moscow. And he called for the strengthening of federalism and a revised treaty between the Russian and Tatar capitals.
Moreover, he called for his republic to increase its bilateral ties with the CIS countries and the states of the Middle East, an appeal that undoubtedly sounds in Moscow like the beginning of a new parade of sovereignties and thus a threat to the system Putin created (
That is all the more likely because Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov echoed the same themes, openly declaring that “a worthy response to the challenges of the financial crisis could become the restoration of the elements of federalism dismantled earlier and the elimination of the existing lack of balance between the center and the subjects of the Federation.”
And in the current environment, the Bashkir leader was quite prepared to draw support from the Gray Wolves organization, a nationalist grouping that has long insisted that Moscow “is ignoring the Bashkir people and conducted itself as ‘an imperialist colonizer’ in relation to the indigenous population.”
Whether such radical ideas will deepen and spread, of course, is far from clear, but Moscow is clearly worried that they could. The ruling United Russia Party recently told its regional branches to keep track of possible strike actions at major enterprises or any other political step locally that might promote unrest.
And last week, Prime Minister Putin took three steps to try to bring the regional leaders to heel. First, he denounced them for failing to spend money wisely, thus attempting to shift the blame away from his government onto theirs, an effort that may play well in Moscow but is unlikely to beyond the ring road.
Second, he announced that regions in the future will be given extra money only if they find a way to do what Moscow orders them to do, a suggestion that may lead ever more regional officials to begin to think how they may want to organize things given the increasing number of now unfunded mandates the central government is creating.
And third, Putin announced the creation of a new commission on regional government policies which he said he will head. Most commentaries have suggested that will give him yet another whip hand in dealing with the regions given that he will be able to stack the deck in evaluating what they do.
But it is entirely possible that that commission, to the extent that it is anything more than a shot-term public relations gimmick, will become the site of new struggles between the center and the regions and republics, one where the latter may come to work together more closely than in the past – a development that would also undercut the power vertical.
The clearest indication that regionalism and separatism are on the rise in the Russian Federation, however, came from another quarter: The leaders of one group of nations which seldom garners much attention felt compelled to deny very loudly that they don’t want to separate from Russia (
Valery Markov, the chairman of the Consultative Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples of the World, said last Thursday that these peoples will “not support” those abroad who call for “the exit of the Finno-Ugric regions of Russia from within that state but instead will always “condemn ideas directed at separatism” in their region.

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