Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Publisher’s Call for Unitary State Frightens Russia’s Minorities

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 9 – Moscow has opened “a Pandora’s box” for itself by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia because as a result of this step, it has created a precedent far more powerful than Kosovo that the West and Russia’s own minorities can use against it to dismantle the Russian Federation, according to the publisher of a leading Moscow newspaper.
Indeed, “Nezavisimaya gazeta’s” Konstantin Remchukov argues that the country is unlikely to remain in one piece once economic difficulties appear unless the Kremlin now organizes a constitutional referendum to disband the country’s national republics and transform it into a unitary state (www.ng.ru/politics/2008-09-05/2_pandorrasbox.html).
But the reactions of both non-Russian and Russian regional groups to such a proposal almost certainly means that Remchukov’s proposal would do more to destroy the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation than any of the current calls by non-Russians for independence or by some in the West ever could.
In his extensive article, which was published in his own newspaper last Friday, Remchukov said that in his view Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was a dangerous mistake. “We did not recognize” them for 15 years, he continued, because it was not in the interest of Russia’s territorial integrity.
“The principle of the right of nations to self-determination in our conditions is incompatible with the survival of the federation,” he suggested, noting that in the 1990s, Moscow had no choice but to reject that principle lest it be unable to explain why the Chechens should not be recognized as an independent state.
“Moreover,” the publisher said, “the West, crossing its heart, especially after September 11th recognized the legitimacy of the use of any force in the struggle with Chechen separatists for the protection of the territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation. And thus, it should have been clear to all that “the recognition of separatists is now our strategic priority.”
Indeed, even when the West recognized Kosovo, a step to which Moscow angrily reacted, Remchukov said, the Russian government did not respond as many had expected by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, mindful that doing so would have consequences for the Russian Federation far greater than any Western action in the former Yugoslavia.
But now that has changed. In response to the actions of the Georgian government, Moscow has recognized separatists. And the Moscow publisher suggests that may have been Saakashvili’s “mission on this earth” – to give the West “a priceless precedent for the further legitimation of the dismantling of Russia.
At present, Russia’s economic successes and the de facto unitary quality of the Russian state mean that separatism is not a major problem. But if the economy deteriorates as it is likely to and if the state is divided, then, there is likely to be “a growth in separatist attitudes” among the elites in non-Russian and Russian regions.
And that is something that the West will not oppose. “I am not saying that I have seen with my own eyes a strategy of the West on the dismantling of Russia. But to me it is evident that the West will not feel any discomfort if Russia will crumble into pieces. Small partners are more convenient for it,” as “the entire post-Soviet history shows.”
Unfortunately, he said, “I practically do not see any means of [preventing this] if a number of difficult steps are not taken,” including first of all “the adoption by a popular referendum of a new Constitution which will convert Russia into a unitary state,” something that will help it survive well into the future.
And Moscow must take this step quickly, while the economy is still strong, while patriotism in the wake of the Georgian conflict is at a high, and while people in Russia have gotten used to living in what has become “de facto” a unitary state already under Vladimir Putin and now Dmitry Medvedev.
Not surprisingly, non-Russian groups have already expressed their horror about such an idea, one that might appear to condemn them to disappear in the longer term and that would certainly spark radical demands for independence in the short (www.nr2.ru/society/195120.html and www.kominarod.ru/gazeta/news_slav/2008/09/08/russiannews_8374.html).
Moreover, suggestions by some in West that they are considering responding to Russia’s moves in Georgia by extending recognition to non-Russian groups now inside Russia’s borders is attracting the attention of these groups (babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=47412) and condemnation (http://www.gzt.ru/politics/2008/09/08/223024.html).
For most of the last century, with the singular exception of the Yeltsin era, what is now the Russian Federation has been de facto a unitary state despite its federal arrangements. Any move to eliminate those federal arrangements, however weak they may be, would undermine Russia’s territorial integrity far more quickly than almost any other imaginable step.

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