Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Strengthening of Regions Said Key to Russia’s Survival as a State

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 12 – Russian politicians and commentators have historically viewed power relations between Moscow and the regions as a zero-sum game, with any gain by one coming at the expense of the other. But now some analysts are saying that only by strengthening the regions can Moscow become stronger and the territorial integrity of the country preserved.
And while at least some of the impulse behind such an argument may be a desire to strengthen ethnic Russian regions at the expense of non-Russian republics, its appearance now could affect discussions about federalism under Dmitry Medvedev after the uncontrolled decentralization under Boris Yeltsin and the tightly controlled recentralization of Vladimir Putin.
Moscow analyst Sergey Kornyev points out that most Russians who talk about regions and regionalism discuss them in terms of whether they are “harmful or useful” or “necessary or unnecessary.” But it is far more realistic to recognize that in a large country now, they are something that can’t be avoided (
Consequently, he argues on the basis of a broad survey of regionalist opinion and analysis both inside Russia and abroad, it is more “constructive” to ask: “what ought Russian regionalism to be in order to increase the positive consequences of this trend for Russians and to minimize the negative ones?”
But to get to that point, Kornyev suggests, Russians need to overcome three problems that have infected discussions of regionalism there. First, they need to recognize that regionalist thought in contemporary Russia is still in its infancy with many of its advocates saying things that reflect that lack of development.
Second, Russians need to recognize that regionalism is not “a synonym of separatism” or something that inevitably leads either to that or to the weakening of the state. On the one hand, he argues, regionalism can help block separatism; and on the other, it can if properly managed strengthen the state itself.
And third, Russia must develop its own theory and practice of regionalism given its unique history and geography rather than rely on foreign models be they the European Union, the United States, or any other country. Copying in this field simply will not work, the Moscow analyst concludes.
Once those problems are acknowledged and addressed, it is possible to see the differences between regionalism and “micro-nationalism.” Separatists, he says, “focus on the chimera of a unitary micro-state with its illusory ‘sovereignty,” while “regionalists focus on the struggle for free and comfortable conditions for the well-being of the region in a larger unity.”
Once that is understood, he continues, it becomes obvious that “active regions in a strong state are a better outcome for everyone than passive regions in a weak one -- especially since the ‘common pie’ of a strong state will be larger than the one offered by a weak state.’
Another key difference, Kornyev says, is that separatists are more concerned about acquiring “formal” symbols of power such as a flag and a place in the United Nations, while regionalists are more inclined to seek “the maximum and creative use of those possibilities which the region has” within the existing state.
Because that is their goal, “the very first opponent of regionalists” in Russia is not Moscow but “’regional feudal leaders’” who stand to lose power if the center ever shifts support from them to the population. Their ideology, Kornyev says, is best called “’nomenklatura autonomism.’”
A further difference, he says, is that micro-nationalists base their claims on an abstract “people,” while regionalists speak in the name of “creative, active and morally healthy residents of a region who are capable of organizing themselves,” in short, in the name of an emerging civil society.
And finally, the two differ with respect to the unity of the Russian ethnos. Micro-nationalists view that as “’a sad inheritance of Empire’” while regionalists see that larger community as a “colossal” resource for the development of their own societies and a more just international division of labor.
In that sense as in many others, Kornyev suggests, “the Russian case” with regard to regional ideas and arrangements is “much closer to the American than to the European. And he pointedly adds that for Russian regionalists of his strip, what is needed is not “; a Russia of 100 flags and 100 languages’ but ‘a Russian United States.”
Obviously, that idea will be viewed skeptically both by Moscow centralists and by non-Russians who will view it as an attack on their prerogatives. But “not one of the problems” Russia faces in this regard, Kornyev says, “can be resolved by people accustomed to waiting passively for decisions from Moscow.”
“If Russia falls apart now,” he continues in language certain to be even more provocative, “while regionalism from below is still ‘not included’ in the system, then its population will be a kind of amorphous biomass, incapable of standing up for itself in the face of a conspiracy of foreign forces and local kleptocrats.”
For Russia to flourish, “the regions must have their own standing and their own will and an ability to cooperate ‘horizontally’ one with another. The civil society of the regions must be sufficiently strong and organized to keep the local powers that be on a short leash and not to allow the ‘feudal’ scenario” of decay Russia has seen in the past.

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