Thursday, February 19, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Economic Crisis Makes Russia’s Regions Increasingly Restive

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 19 – Yesterday’s decision by the Sakha legislature not to drop provisions in that Far Eastern republic’s constitution affirming its sovereignty is only the latest of a string of actions which highlight the growing restiveness of republic leaders and their increasing willingness to stake out positions at odds with those of Moscow.
Among the others this week are suggestions that some regions and republics will pull out of various national programs because the central Russian government is not providing the funds it had promised for their implementation and a call by Kaliningrad’s influential governor for Moscow to give the federal subjects greater authority so they can combat the economic crisis.
The product of the current economic crisis and the sense in some regions that Moscow is divided, this renewed restiveness is leading some commentators to ask how the Russian Federation should be organized if it is to emerge from its current difficulties and even whether it can do so if it retains its current borders.
The Sakha decision is especially important. Yesterday, “Kommersant” reports, the Sakha legislature refused to eliminate references to the sovereignty of that republic and to the people of Sakha rather than of the Russian Federation as a whole as the true source of that sovereignty (
The deputies took that decision, the parliament’s speaker Vitaly Basygysov said, following a ruling from the republic’s Constitutional Court which concluded that these provisions “do not contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation and do not limit the sovereignty of Russia” in any way.
The parliament had asked the court for a decision after the Moscow-appointed prosecutor there had demanded that references to sovereignty be dropped in order to bring the republic document into line with federal law, a demand that infuriated the deputies because he equated sovereignty with separatism.
And consequently, Sakha, like Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chechnya all retain passages in their basic laws which Moscow officials have insisted be changed, an indication that Vladimir Putin’s push for absolute consistency in legislation has run into a brick wall in all four places.
Another example of regional restiveness is a series of discussions in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk and Tatarstan about their possible withdrawal from certain national projects, and in particular the one dealing with public health, because they are not receiving the money that the central authorities had promised (
While such statements likely are intended both to deflect the anger of the population from local officials to the center and to put pressure on Moscow to provide more money, they are nonetheless striking that both Vladimir Putin in December and Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov said a few days ago that the money for these problems will not be cut.
And yet a third example is the proposal by Kaliningrad Governor Georgy Boos to have the Russian Federation State Council “increase the independence of the regions” so that they will be better able to combat the consequences of the economic crisis, a call that he plans to amplify later this week (
These efforts and the problems with Putin’s “power vertical” they underscore have prompted several commentators to address the issue directly of the relationship between Russia’s historically extreme centralization and the prospects for modernization and democratization. Among the most interesting of these authors are Boris Tumanov and Mikhail Olgertov.
In today’s “Gazeta,” Tumanov argues that the only the only way for Russia to escape its current “imperial ineffectiveness” is to allow for the development of “democratic” devolution of the country into what he says are its “natural economic spaces” rather than continue to try to hold things together by force (
Like many writers unhappy with the increasing authoritarianism of Moscow, Tumanov rests his argument on the experience of medieval Novgorod. And while he says it would be absurd to simply revive that model for Russia now, it is worth recalling because any discussion of it highlights two important aspects of the country’s history.
On the one hand, he writes, the experience of Novgorod “destroys the myth about the initial primacy of the state in Russian social consciousness.” Novgorod shows that is simply not true, however much many in Russian regimes since that time have insisted and however many ordinary Russians believe it.
And on the other, the experience of Novgorod and especially the result of its incorporation by Muscovy shows that “democracy as a means of social existence can arise only on a territory which has a human dimension,” a territory, “the borders of which do not create obstacles to communication among its residents.”
Unfortunately, he continues, the drive of the Russian state to expand and then to hold on to its conquests has “reduced the effectiveness of the state” to manage the affairs of the people living under its control and “broken off the natural process of the establishment and consolidation of the Russian nation.”
“Even it is current much reduced form,” Tumanov insists, “the territory of Russian continues to be a space on which any striving to civic freedoms, any attempt at self-administration, any civic initiative, and any attempt at equal dialogue with the powers that be remains isolated and almost instantly dies out.”
Russia will not have a real civil society, he says, as long as the Russian state and the Russian people think that the greatness of our country lies “not in its ability to create a powerful economy and provide a good standard of living but rather in the size of its territory and in its ability to destroy the US many time over or take Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.”
Unlike some of the more apocalyptic Russian bloggers, Tumanov says that “we can do this,” but “only under one condition.” Russians must recognize that “the modernization of the Russian economy is impossible without the modernization of the system of power and of social relations.”
And “the modernization of our society requires as a minimum local (rural, urban and regional) self-administration and broad autonomy relative to the powers that be at the center.” Unfortunately, he says, “from the point of view of the Kremlin, this is a direct path to a new territorial disintegration of the country.”
But what the country’s rulers do not understand is that their obsession with the power vertical and their elimination of federalism from everything except the name of the country will “sooner or later lead to a new spontaneous disintegration [of the country] with unpredictable consequences for the future of the Russian nation.”
If on the other hand, the Russian people and their government recognize that size and the ability to intimidate are not everything, then perhaps they could tolerate not only the devolution of power from the center to the regions but also the dividing up of Russia into “natural economic spaces, such as European Russia, the Urals with Western Siberia,” and so on.
Such spaces, Tumanov points out, “in any case would remain Russian and therefore,” however much the Kremlin and the overwhelming majority of Russians think otherwise at present, “it is not so important if they will exist in the form of some kind of confederation or as independent states.”
On the site, which also draws on the Novgorod model, Mikhail Olgertov this week addresses the same issues but from a different starting point. He notes that opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has suggested that Russia has only two options: a new dictatorship or a new perestroika (
But Olgertov argues that however preferable a new perestroika might be, it could end in the same way the Russian Federation has unless Russians have the courage to carry it through with far more thoroughness than they were under the auspices of Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago.
That perestroika, he points out, “destroyed the USSR politically, territorially and economically,” but in none of these three areas did it go far enough. Many of the old political elite continued in office, and many of those who went into business did so in faces that reflected the Soviet past.
But the most serious problem, according to the writer, is that the territorial disintegration of the USSR was not carried to its logical conclusion. “The central part of the USSR, its core, was never split up,” he writes, and as a result, it was not long before some wanted to extend what remained of the empire to those parts that had fallen away.
Indeed, he suggests, “the logic of the existence of the Russian Federation [now] is little different from the logic of the existence of the USSR or the tsarist Russian Empire.” And consequently, if another perestroika is carried out without the complete dissolution of the Russian Federation, the cycle of collapse and repression will continue.
And while Olgertov says that he would personally prefer “a new perestroika” to a new dictatorship, he writes that he fears that if Nemtsov or Garri Kasparov were to carry it out without being willing to tolerate the breakup of the remaining empire, then one or the other of them could easily become “the new Putin” and Russia would lose “yet another several decades.”

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