Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Uncertain How to React to ‘New Russian Separatism’

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 25 – Separatist ideas are increasingly appearing in predominantly ethnic Russian regions, fueled by growing anger at the Russian government’s failure to cope with the current economic crisis and the anti-Moscow feelings that have long been a feature of many of these far-flung areas.
Unlike “the parade of sovereignties” in which the non-Russian republics participated at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Andrey Serenko writes in today’s “Nezacisimaya gazeta,” this new trend is affecting many of the far larger number of ethnically Russian dominated areas (
And both that trend in predominantly Russian areas and the specific forms it has taken are presenting the leadership in Moscow with a challenge that no one at the top of the Russian political system seems to fully understand or to have figured out a way to respond, according to the journalist.
The centers of these protests so far have been in port cities, Serenko points out, but the forms they have taken and the demands they have advanced have varied widely. There have been meetings and disorders, on the one hand, and the voting down of “Kremlin candidates” in local and regional elections, on the other.
The protests in Vladivostok “began with economic demands” like rolling back new tariffs on imported cars, but they have soon added political ones to their agenda, first demanding the firing of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government and then, in a few cases, calling for the formation of a Far Eastern Republic and even its independence.
Then in Murmansk, voters supported a local candidate against a Kremlin-approved figure because the former used as his slogan “Moscow, Don’t Try to Teach Us How to Live – We Aren’t Serfs.” It turned out Serenko said that this “anti-Moscow” appeal generated more support than government-supported calls “to vote for Putin’s party.
Had there been only the demonstrations in Vladivostok and other Far Eastern cities or had there been only this single case of electoral repudiation, Moscow might have dismissed the whole thing, but the two cases together, the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist writes, constitute “a tendency” that Moscow cannot ignore.
Moreover, “it is evident that latent Russian separatism has gone far beyond the borders of Vladivostok, Blagoveshchensk and Murmansk,” and that ‘the revolts’ in port cities are only a reflection of attitudes which are percolating” in other out of the way sections of the enormous Russian Federation.
But if the central government cannot ignore it, Serenko continues, Moscow clearly has not yet figured how to react effectively to it since many of the tools and ideological themes it employed against the non-Russians in the past are not available in the case of ethnic Russian regions with this kind of agendas.
The central authorities, he suggests, are especially concerned by these outbursts because they are obviously powered by the economic crisis and may be being used by ethnic Russian regional elites, a far more dangerous situation than the earlier parade of sovereignties where non-Russian groups were involved.
Moscow’s first target, not surprisingly, are the elites in the regions where these protests have broken out because the central government blames them in the first instance from allowing “the separatist attitudes of ‘extreme Russians’ which had existed underground to break out into the information and political space.”
Thus the center’s response: the use of outside force to crush the demonstrators in the Far East and the dismissal of Murmansk governor Yury Yevdokimov, for failing to get Moscow’s man into the mayor’s slot. Earlier when governors failed to do this, Moscow was displeased, but in this case, it was angry, an indication of its new nervousness.
Indeed, Serenko says, the events in these two port cities “show that the powers that be in the center see a threat from ‘the new Russian separatism’” that they had earlier sought to counter with structures like the Rodina Party, something that does not now exist or by anti-corruption campaigns which now do not appear likely to work.
But there are at least two deeper reasons that Moscow is now especially frightened by this phenomenon. On the one hand, such protests and the support they appear to enjoy from regional elites show that Moscow’s efforts to build its “power vertical” have not created regional elites that are “absolutely loyal to the Kremlin.”
And on the other, Russian politicians, who frequently look at the present through a lens from the past, have not forgotten the Polish Solidarity movement, which began in a few port cities and then “became a center for the political modernization of that country and even a forge a new elite.”
Whether the Russian variant of this movement will take off, of course, is far from certain. But if the economic crisis deepens, it will certainly be able to draw energy from anti-Moscow sentiments among Russians, for as one resident of St. Petersburg wrote this week, the best thing about the Northern Capital is that it isn’t Moscow (

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