Friday, May 27, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Rise of Siberian Nationality a ‘Positive’ Development, Presidential Plenipotentiary Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 27 – Viktor Tolokonsky, the presidential plenipotentiary for the Siberian Federal District, says that the increasing number of residents of that region who identify as Siberians rather than Russians is “a positive and valuable phenomenon” because it is an indicator of a definite kind of patriotism.”

At the same time, he insisted, “this does not mean that Siberian wants any special status or autonomization” or that it is “a sign of separatism,” adding that he “considers himself a Siberian,” although he did not say, Siberian news outlets pointed out, whether he had identified himself in that way in the recent census (

Tolokonsky’s remarks in Tomsk represent a second and far more significant expression of support for “Siberian” as a nationality by a senior Russian official. Earlier, Aleksandr Surinov, the head of Rosstat, the state statistics agency, said that the 2010 census could show “a new nationality – Siberian” (

There are at least three reasons why Tolokonsky may have made this remark, any of which appears likely to have far-reaching consequences for the future of Russia east of the Urals. First of all, he may simply have wanted to try to put himself among the leaders of an increasingly numerous group in order to draw on its power to put pressure on Moscow.

The rising tide of Siberian anger about Moscow’s exploitation of the region and especially its failure to send enough money back to it is currently epitomized by a campaign Siberian regionalists have launched to demand more funds for building roads in the region at least relative to the amount being spent in European Russia.

Second, the presidential plenipotentiary may have made this comment as part of pre-election maneuvering, seeking to ensure that those who identify as Siberians do not, as they appear to be doing, conclude that they are no friends in the power vertical and thus decide to vote for opponents of United Russia in the upcoming elections.

Or third, Tolokonsky may have made his statement about Siberian nationality to try to weaken it by suggesting that Siberianness is limited to the Siberian Federal District rather than to all of Russia east of the Urals and that the Russian government can embrace it as part of what some might call “repressive tolerance.”

If the first of these reasons points to the way in which a political figure might use such an identification to advance his own political agenda, the second and third could in fact serve Moscow’s interests by defusing somewhat the oppositional nature of Siberian identity or even splitting the movement.

But however that may be, Tolokonsky’s remark underscores the fact that Siberian identity is not nearly as marginal a phenomenon as many in Moscow have assumed and calls attention to two realities that many analysts there pointed to when Vladimir Putin first created the federal districts.

On the one hand, these commentators noted at the time, the presidential plenipotentiaries represented a serious potential problem. If they were not given enough power to rein in those below them, they would simply represent yet another bureaucratic layer rather than a serious step toward increased bureaucratic efficiency.

And on the other, they pointed out, dividing Russia into fewer than ten federal units in place of the more than 80 that had existed up to that point could trigger the disintegration of the country. As several commentators pointed out, no country with more than 15 units had ever come apart while an increasing number with fewer have done so.

It seems unlikely that those calculations were on Tolokonsky’s mind when he made these comments, but it is almost certain that they will be on the minds both of Siberians thinking about their future and of Muscovites concerned about the evolution of the Russian Federation over the next decade.

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