Sunday, November 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Isolationism in Russian Regions Now Threatens Moscow’s Control

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 2 – Over the course of the last decade, Moscow has successfully contained most separatist movements in predominantly ethnic Russian regions, but now, as a result of the measures the Kremlin has used to achieve that goal, the center is confronted by a potentially no less serious challenge in the form of regional isolationism.
During presidency, the Moscow Center for Systemic Regional Research and Forecasting says in a new 80 page report, Vladimir Putin gave regional leaders great latitude in how they operated on their own territories, allowing them to destroy institutions with links outside their regions, in exchange for declarations of absolute loyalty (
That grand bargain has frequently been noted in the case of Chechnya under its current leader Ramzan Kadyrov, but the Moscow Center makes the important point that this same dynamic is taking place in some Russian regions and thus promoting the growth of regional isolationism in place of the now discredited separatism.
But that development is dangerous, the center’s report says, because such isolationist impulses, which seek to make each region self-sufficient and thus less integrated into the country as a whole, are “separatism in a latent form” and could at a time of crisis, like the economic one Russia now faces, mean that Moscow would face far more separatist challenges than it expects.
The experts at the Moscow Center, which was created earlier this year by a group of academics and NGOs, draw their conclusions on the basis of an examination of Saratov oblast, one of three predominantly Russian regions (the other two are Primorsky kray and Kaliningrad oblast), that they suggest show this trend toward isolationism most clearly.
These three places share four characteristics: they are border areas, they have a large number of social problems, there is “a serious concentration” of criminal activity in the local elite, and, as a result of the actions of their leaders in the 1990s, they are separated ideologically from the rest of what the new study describes as “the Slavic part of Russia.”
In the 1990s, Saratov was lead by Dmitry Ayatskov. He employed “an expansionist rhetoric” and pursued policies, including the notion of “Saratov as the Capital of the Volga Region” and the restoration of autonomy for the Volga Germans or at least the resettlement of Germans in his oblast.
None of these projects succeeded as he intended, but they did both frighten off outside investors, thus worsening the economic situation there, and frighten Moscow, whose leaders viewed what Ayatskov was doing as the initial stages of some kind of Saratov independence movement.
Consequently, Putin sacked Ayatskov in 2005 and replaced him with a more pliant governor and gave real power to the local head of United Russia Vyacheslav Volodin, who dropped all these ideological excesses but who also took steps which meant that except for declarations of loyalty, Moscow did not get what it wanted.
Initially, the new governor Pavel Ipatov and Volodin successfully attracted investments from outside the oblast and more actively participated in Moscow political life. But the first declined as Volodin sought to impose tighter control over everything, and the second became less important as Putin froze the regions out of central policy making.
Indeed, in an unanticipated way, Volodin made use of his party resources, including access to information from Moscow and control over the appointment of other officials representing the center there not only to promote his own “cult of personality” but also to create “an isolationist ideology” among the Saratov elite.
Volodin and his associates could only have real power locally – and that was the only power they had access to thanks to Putin’s changes in Moscow – by destroying or freezing out any group or institution that might compete with them, including relatively independence city and district governments and outside investments.
And that is exactly what they have done. The result, the center’s experts argue, is the use in Saratov and other “Russian” regions has been the rise of “charismatic leaders,” “the privatization of federal resources,” and “the conversion of the federal state into something like a feudal appanage system.”
In this way, the center continues, the efforts of Putin to promote “the strengthening of the vertical power” have in fact created the conditions for its destruction because “a change in the macroeconomic situation or any external economic crisis” can transform this kind of isolationism into genuine “internal or state separatism.”
Under “the most tragic scenario,” they say, these attitudes, always present but exacerbated by Putin’s policies, “could lead to the separation of a number of territories from Russia and the creation of launching pads for the interference of foreign powers on the internal policy of the country.”
If that is to be avoided, the center’s analysts conclude, Moscow must not only allow the regions and their populations a greater role in central politics but also restrict the powers of its agents in the regions and promote city governments to counter the ability of individuals like Volodin to dominate and thus isolate their regions.
Unfortunately, they suggest, the central government at present does not appear interested in taking any of those steps, however much they are in its own interests and however much the center’s failure to take them will threaten the integrity of the country even more than the separatist challenges of non-Russian groups.

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