Saturday, June 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: A New and More Dangerous ‘Red Belt’ Emerges in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 20 – A new “red belt” is emerging in Russia, the result of the coming together of economic problems, political difficulties between Moscow and the regions, and ethnic challenges to central control, according to a new map of social tensions drawn up by a leading Russian news service.
But this map, which shows a broad swath of Russia between the North Caucasus and the Pacific, is incomplete, according to Arina Morokova of the New Region agency which compiled it, because the powers that be in many regions have succeeded in suppressing the kind of information needed for an accurate display (
Aleksandr Kynyev, one of the experts the agency consulted, identified as “hot red points” in Russia as including Leningrad oblast, Altai kray, Kamchatka, Primorsky kray, Irkutsk, Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk oblasts and Udmurtia. In his view, people in these places are ready to “block roads and [engage in other] actions of open disobedience” to the authorities.
That list, Kynyev points out, “does not mean that in other territories everything is fine. It simply means that thanks to powerful filters there is no information coming from them at the present time.” And it thus may be the case that the situation across the country is significantly worse than many now think.
According to political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky, there are three criteria of those regions which are now at risk of heightened social tensions and the actions such tensions may generate. The first factor, as many others have pointed out as well, is the presence of single-industry cities or regions.
Up to 20 million Russians – or one in every seven residents – live in such places, economist Mikhail Delyagin says, there are “thousands” such cities and towns, but “when they are far from the capital, we do not learn anything about them” unless there is violence or unless a national leader like Vladimir Putin shows up.
The second factor, Belkovsky continues, is the existence of a conflict between the Kremlin and a regional leader.” Such tensions are perhaps greatest in non-Russian republics like Bashkortostan but they exist in “a latent fashion” elsewhere as well, including in the city of Moscow itself.
While most analysts do not think of Moscow as a region, the reality is that there are real tensions between the city and oblast, on the one hand, and the central government on the other, tensions that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has routinely exploited to keep and build his power and ones that he might be tempted to use still more if the central government moves against him.
And the third factor is the intensification of inter-ethnic conflicts. Belkovsky suggests that “one should acknowledge today that the Kremlin has lost control over the regions of the North Caucasus. [And] as a result, the situation in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia will only get worse.”
In the 1990s, analysts of Russian affairs routinely talked about the existence of a “red belt” whose residents could be counted on to vote for the Communist Party. But the new red belt that the New Russia news agency is talking about could pose a much greater threat: one that might involve not just a change in government but a change in borders.
If as these analysts suggest, the new belt is even larger than anyone can see given the control many regional leaders have over reporting about what goes on in their territories, then the risk of a social and political explosion across the Russian Federation already is likely to be greater than those following and passively accepting Russian government assertions believe.

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