Vienna, February 17 – Even as the EU seeks to promote a Europe of the regions, Moscow in its drive to make the Russian Federation into a nation-state is transforming regionalists, who could be an important source of cohesion, into separatists who threaten the territorial integrity of the country, according to a Russian specialist on federalism.
In an essay posted online yesterday, Vadim Shtepa, who writes frequently on the interaction of central policy, federal arrangements and ethnicity in Russia, argues that just as Moscow borrowed the idea of the nation state when Europe was giving it up, so too the Russian government has failed to understand the nature and utility of regionalism.
Regionalism in Europe, he continues, is “a phenomenon of recent times, and in Europe it arose together with the establishment of the EU.” As important as it now is on the continent where it allows groups to interact with one another without having to go through the central governments of the countries of which these regions are, regionalism arose almost “unnoticed.”
In post-Soviet Russia, however, regionalism has been and remains a synonym for separatism, and because it has, Moscow has adopted centralizing policies that in an increasing number of cases may be making this fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy (www.apn-spb.ru/publications/article4875.htm).
At present, Shtepa continues, the meaning and possibilities of regionalism are not well understood by many of Russia’s regionalist leaders either, and as a result, they all too often do and say things in response to Moscow’s policies that reinforce the Russian government’s view of what they are about and cause the center to take an even harder line against them.
Indeed, he argues, most of these Russian regionalists are suffering from what he calls, paraphrasing Lenin, four “infantile disorders.” First, largely in reaction to Moscow’s policies and Moscow’s definition of what regionalism is, some regional leaders cannot imagine doing anything except pursuing independence here and now, however unready for it they may be.
Second, and this is something the Internet has encouraged, many of them dream up borders for their future “independent state” that are far larger than any regional arrangements justify. He gives as an example a map of the borders of Idel-Ural – which is posted online with the article -- that is far larger than the communities who form it could support.
Third, many regionalists spend their time thinking up symbols – flags, shields, and so on – rather than working to develop links among the various parts of the region and equally important developing ties not only with the central government but also with neighboring regions and those further afield.
And fourth, Russia’s regionalists engage in “a nationalist rhetoric,” talking about their regions as if they were nations, when it fact they are regions that are either a subset of another larger ethnic community or a combination of various ethnic groups whose reasons for working together are not based on primordial ties but rather on the calculation of interests.
Because Russian regionalists strike this pose, officials at the highest levels of the Russian government remain convinced that regionalism is the first step toward secession. These officials then respond accordingly, Shtepa says, setting off a vicious cycle in which regionalists become secessionists and the center becomes ever more authoritarian.
That could entail tragedies for both, but unfortunately, the way Russians are learning about regionalism from the European Union could just as the way in which they learned about nationalism from the West reinforce this trend rather than redirect it toward more positive outcomes for all concerned.
Europe, both the EU and its neighbors, is currently promoting a variety of cross-border regions that involve parts of Russia. One of the most intriguing of these is contained in the new Action Plan for the Indigenous Peoples in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region for 2009 to 2012 (www.barentsobserver.com/joint-action-plan-for-barents-indigenous-peoples.4558020-116321.html).
Among other things, this plan -- a complete text of which is available via hypertext link in the Barents Observer report -- seeks to improve the way of life of minority groups in Karelia, a mixture of regional and ethnic ideas that reinforces rather than undercuts the current assumptions both Moscow and the regionalists have about regionalism.
While the Russian government is interested in cooperating with these Western efforts up to a point – it has recently made concessions to the Saami nationality as an indication of its good faith – it is obviously concerned about the implications of such concessions both immediately and as models for others (mariuver.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/sovet-saamov/#more-5934).
And while regional activists in Russia are interested in promoting their own interests, they are learning that outsiders like the Europeans are more likely to provide support to the more easily identifiable ethnic communities than to what appear to them to be the more nebulous regional ones.
Consequently, Shtepa writes in conclusion, Russia as a latecomer to the development of regions is all too often finding itself in a trap which quite often resembles the one it is already widely recognized to be in as it seeks to promote the kind of nation state many other parts of the world are now giving up.