Monday, February 1, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Lack of Heat Prompts Some in Karelia to Think About Secession

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 1 – The FSB has opened a criminal case against Karelians who have distributed leaflets calling for their land to be re-attached to Finland, a campaign Russian security services say reflects shortcomings in anti-extremist efforts but one others in that northern region argue is the result of the failure of officials to keep the heat on in local buildings.
At the end of last week, German Shtadler, the head of the Karelian procuracy, announced that the FSB had brought the case after some unknown group distributed leaflets in the Sortavalsk district calling on people there to push for a referendum on transferring their district from Russia to Finland (
No one has yet been arrested – although the local media suggested that the Finnish organization Pro Karelia which seeks the return of territory seized by Stalin after the Winter War -- but once someone is, Shtadler said, he or she will be charged under Article 280 of the Russian criminal code which sets punishments for those who call for carrying out extremist actions.
According to the prosecutor, Karelia “in recent times” has become a favorable breeding ground for “extremist manifestations,” with some of them rooted in ethnic clashes with Gastarbeiters from the North Caucasus as in Kondopoga and Kuitezha and others the reflection of the efforts to union leaders to press for higher wages and better working conditions.
Shtadler explained this trend by pointing to what he said were “essential failures in prophylactic work concerning extremist threats,” including ones committed by the organs of local self-administration although at least in the republic press reporting, he did not give any specifics about these “shortcomings.”
But another local politician, Lyudmila Afanasyeva, who is a member of the Karelian legislature, provided another reason why some people in the region might be interested in having their district transferred from Russia to Finland: They are cold and do not have confidence that the Russian authorities will help them (
Afanasyeva told the press that she herself is a resident of Sortavaly and understands its problems. “I am forced to work with students eight house a day in a room which is heated only to six degrees centigrade (43 degrees Fahrenheit) and then run home to my cold apartment where I live with two invalids.”
Not surprisingly, given the prominent coverage these charges and the 10,000-strong demonstration in Kaliningrad over the weekend have received in the Moscow media, some Russian opposition commentators have extrapolated from what be locally specific and relatively small actions.
Anatoly Baranov, the chief editor of the communist-oriented FORUM.msk website, for example, said that he was “delighted” that prosecutors in Karelia were so concerned with “the chief thing, the souls of the citizens” rather than their “frail bodies which in the name of high patriotic principles can freeze a little.”
After all, he continued, “spring will come” to the North Russian eventually. And he added that in his view, “the procuracy and the FSB of the Karelian Republic had shown a remarkable gift for seeing where things are headed.” Soon, he said, Russian officials are likely to bring charges of extremism against anyone calling for a referendum on anything.
Indeed, he suggested ironically, “it is already time to initiate criminal cases concerning extremist calls to observer the [Russian Federation] Constitution.” After all, that document guarantees citizens the right to seek and conduct referenda on any and all issues of concern to the Russian people.
Meanwhile, Petr Khomyakov, a radical nationalist critic of Moscow who now lives as a political exile in Ukraine, argued in an online commentary that the events in Karelia show that “it is physically impossible to live in the Russian Federation” and that the country will begin to come apart this year (
He suggested that it is important not to view the Karelian case as an isolated one. Not long ago, he recalled, some people in Stavropol raised the possibility of separating from the Russian Federation and joining Belarus. That effort was dismissed in Moscow as the work of “urban madmen.”
But Khomyakov, without providing any sources, said that there is evidence that many influential people in that southern federal subject agreed with the call and that there were “analogous tendencies” in Belgorod and Kuban, where some want to unite with Ukraine, and in Smolensk, where at least a few residents want to join Belarus.
But these are sideshows, he suggested, from the rise of separatist attitudes in Siberia, attitudes that Khomyakov suggested reflect the wave of technogenic disasters and environmental pollution that enormous region has suffered recently and Moscow’s neglect of its social, economic and political problems.
The exiled commentator recalls the old Soviet anecdote about a lecture on the question, “Is there life on Mars?” One of the members of the audience said that “on Mars, it is possible that there is life.” But then he asked, “But when will that be the case in the USSR?” These are questions, he said, that ever more Russians are now asking about Russia.

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