Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Is Siberia Becoming Russia’s Catalonia?

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 31 – Ever since the Olympic Games in Barcelona, the world has grown accustomed to the slogan “Catalonia is not Spain,” a St. Petersburg writer says, and uses an essay in that city’s “Nevskoye vremya” to ask “how great is the probability of hearing something similar about Siberia?”

For a long time, Denis Terentyev says, most political analysts viewed Siberian separatists as “a marginal movement,” one “whose goal is a prior unattainable, and thus quite unlike “the more or less serious” movements in the Caucasus, Tatarstan, and Urals Republic” because “Siberian separate from Russia could not exist” (www.nvspb.ru/stories/sibir-otdelno-45365).

Siberian separatism received a great deal of attention ten to fifteen years ago, Terentyev notes, even though “the movement of independence in Siberia did not arise then” and has not disappeared so. Instead, in recent years, “unique actions of civil disobedience have seized the entire region,” with it becoming the done thing to identify as a Sibirian in the census.

Terentyev suggests that these people are in fact Russians and have identified as such in the past, but he notes that “Irkutsk journalists say that the number of ‘separatists’ is really about 80 to 90 percent” of the population and that now “in local business the first question addressed to a potential partner is whether he is a Siberian or a Muscovite.”

A “Muscovite,” the writer continues, “can be someone from Petersburg, Bryansk or Balashikha – for the locals he is a symbol of ‘the colonial regime.’” The reason for the rise of this new nationality, Terentyev says is “as a reaction to the actions of the center” which have taken the wealth of the region and given far too little back.

In Siberian schools, “teachers tell the children that their native kray is fabulously wealthy, that here are 85 percent of the reserves of Russian natural gas, 60 percent of the oil, 75 percent of the coal and 70 percent of the aluminum.” And they accurately note that “a large part of the earnings [from these sectors] is taken by Moscow.”

One Irkutsk editor told him, Terentyev says, that “the center is beginning to understand the danger of what is taking place.” Its response is what one might expect: Representatives of the center have “had conversations [with him and other editors] about the undesirability of publications on the theme of Siberian separatism.”

The impact of such “conversations” is obvious, that editor said, from the way in which the media there have treated the case of former OMON officer Aleksandr Budnikov, who received a suspended sentence of two years for “extremist” comments posted on the Internet but who now faces four years in prison for seeking to separate Siberia from Russia by force.

The latest charges were filed after Budnikov and “several hundred of like-minded people” decided to seek the recall of their representatives in the Duma and Federation Council, the editor said, because as he said, “these people are not expressing our interests and the Constitution allows us to recall them.”

But Terentyev says, the ban Moscow wants extends far beyond this case. “In the newspapers, it has become not acceptable to write that the history of Siberia even before the Novosibirsk militiaman was full of attempts at self-determination,” and that in 1918, Siberia existed as an independent state albeit for only a short time.

In the nineteenth century, in fact, Anton Chekhov “note3d that Siberians are not like other Russians,” and today,, “as a result of the poor image of Russians in the world, it is more honorable to call oneself a Siberian,” all the more so because Siberians blame Moscow for their problems and see the rise of China with its high rises and paved roads.

On their side of the Sino-Russian border, the residents of Siberia see decaying peasant huts and “even federal highways that are not paved.” Not surprisingly, Terentyev says, “local residents draw the conclusion that Moscow is guilty in everything.” But he concludes that they should remember that “with separation, the problems of Siberia would only deepen.”

However that may be, Siberian activists are continuing to press for greater autonomy or even more. As one comment appended to Terentyev’s essay noted, “Siberians are already prepared to hold a referendum on uniting Siberia with the United States” (ru-ru.facebook.com/#!/home.php?sk=group_112982375434933&ap=1).

And another Siberian activist drew another conclusion. Yes, Siberians look like Russians, and they share many characteristics with them. But they are not engaged in “trading off the Motherland” as Muscovites are because unlike in the capital, “in the provinces it is impossible to do that” (sibirnet.ru/node/84).

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