The Kremlin's ineffective regional policy sparks decentralization
This year may be a pretty bad one for Russia. Steep economic decline, huge outflow of capital, mounting decentralization sentiments in the regions and the growing interethnic and religious tension point at a deeper and more serious internal political crisis faced by Putin’s command democracy.
THE INGRIANIZATION OF RUSSIA
In an effort to rescue AvtoVAZ plant in Kaliningrad Oblast from bankruptcy in 2010, Vladimir Putin imposed prohibitive duties on the import of used cars. This hit one of the oblast’s major business sectors hard. The subsequent mass protests reminded local entrepreneur Sergey Pasko of the idea to transform the oblast into a Baltic Republic under the protectorate of the EU. The new state would formally be tied to Russia but have the European-type rule of law. The lack of it is seen as the main source of trouble in the region.
Sociologists also confirm the growing threat of separatism there. In March, the Russia Public Opinion Research Center conducted a survey where 10% of the local population said they preferred Kaliningrad Oblast out of the Russian Federation. Another 20% said this was a possible scenario.
Some even suggest establishing an independent state made up of Kaliningrad Oblast, St. Petersburg and western part of Leningrad Oblast. This is Ingria, the name of the region that had been a Swedish province prior to Peter I conquering it.
The Kremlin’s functionaries took the demonstrations in St. Petersburg with the slogan Stop Feeding Moscow! and Ingrian yellow-blue flags very seriously. Fans of the local football club, Zenit, who hung up banners in support of this state project during a match against Moscow’s Dynamo, also made a strong impression.
Another project of Russian separatists is the Ural Republic, with its capital in Yekaterinburg. It existed in the early 1990s but survived a mere five months. The initiator was Governor Eduard Rossel who thus wanted to get more rights from Moscow. On April 25, 1993, in a referendum to declare the Ural Republic on the territory of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, 83% of the population voted in favour of this idea and turnout was at 67%. By contrast, only 51% of the populace in the region turned out for the 2011 parliamentary election.
During Putin’s rule, this idea resurfaced. As local entrepreneurs say, the Kremlin’s functionaries are literally robbing the Ural. And there is definitely something worth stealing there: the vast territory with a population of 15 million has 70% of natural resources. Most of its taxes and income go to Moscow, providing for its luxurious lifestyle. Meanwhile, a group called the Federal Republic of Great Ural registered in social media counts 8,500 participants. It stands behind the integration of the Great Ural regions divided between the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, and the creation of a single economic, political and cultural space – from the Arctic to the Caspian and Aral Seas.
WE’RE ALL SIBERIANS!
The biggest threat for the Kremlin could be the initiation of separatist movements in Siberia. If separated, it would leave half of Russia’s present territory. These trends were already apparent in about 2005 when Our Native Angar Land, a political movement, came in second in the local parliamentary election in Irkutsk Oblast. In 2006, some local leaders criticized the federal centre at a session of the Siberian Accord Interregional Association. The Governor of Tomsk Oblast, Viktor Kress declared that “it is vitally necessary for the regions of the Siberian Federal District to be aware of their own specific interests and to unite into a special Federation entity in order to protect and guarantee them.”
Thus, the ideas of Dmitry Verkhoturov, the author of the concept of the Siberian nation and a Siberian Autonomous Republic as confederation with Russia, are of interest to some of the local elite, not just his supporters on regional web forums. It is with their support that he developed a Siberian language dictionary.
In June 2007, the leader of the Oblast Alternative of Siberia, Mikhail Kulekhov, posted a review entitled Will the Russian Federation Survive until 2014? on a Moscow-based website. He noted that according to the results of a poll conducted in Irkutsk and Bratsk by the local Who is Who agency, nearly 60% of those polled supported the autonomy of Siberia and 25% supported its independence. When asked whether they considered themselves to be Russians or Siberians, 80% responded Siberians and only 12% referred to themselves as Russians. Between 30% to 50% of Irkutians have Buryat or Evenk roots – these are indigenous peoples of Siberia.
In the 2010 national census, many Siberian residents listed their nationality as Siberian. Since civil servants tried to list them as Russians, some took to the streets to protest, flying the white-green Siberian flag, an image of their federal district and the slogan “We’ll show Moscow what Siberia is!”
The Far Eastern Federal District is in a more difficult position. With the population of 6 million, it shares a border with the 110-million population of adjacent Chinese provinces. They are the source of intense demographic and economic expansion to Russia’s unpopulated eastern territories. Unlike their economically successful neighbours such as South Korea, Japan and China, 20% of the Russian Far East lives beyond poverty line.
To a great extent, this is the result of Moscow’s efforts to restrain the region’s development and exploit the territory along with China. It takes every effort to restrict options for Russian Far East chelnoki – shuttle traders - in China thus paralyzing the region’s economy based on shuttle trade. Plus, the locals remember the disruption of a protest in Vladivostok in the late 2008 with OMON, special units of the Russian police, brought from Moscow. The Kremlin took Japanese flags carried by the protesters as a separatist conspiracy. As a result, repressions against activists of the Fellowship of Proactive Citizens of Russia – the flagship of secessionism in the Far East – mounted.
The Fellowship’s goal is to return freedom to entrepreneurs and local governments, and have laws amended to match the specifics of regional cooperation with China. According to its activists, this is the only way to attract investors and halt migration to the European parts of Russia. The Fellowship can boast the first success: Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia), the pro-Kremlin party, won 20% less votes in the latest parliamentary election compared to the previous one. Now, the activists speak more loudly of the possible creation of the Far East Federation in cooperation with the Siberian Union.
Frustration also mounts among the non-Russian population in the regions. The North Caucasus is the most dangerous of them. Shooting and explosions is heard here on a daily basis, and a war of Islamists rages to establish the Caucasian Imamate. According to expert estimates, terrorists have killed 659 and injured 490 people, and committed 182 terrorist attacks in this region.
Secessionist sentiments are high in Tatarstan. De jure and increasingly de facto, it is not a subject of the Russian Federation. Russian Constitutional Court has been trying for several years now to force the republic bring its Constitution into conformity with the Russian one and remove the provision on sovereignty, but these efforts prove futile.
The Kremlin seems to not understand – or not want to understand – what really causes its regional governance crisis. Nor does it intend to decentralize its budget or tax systems to stop the subsidizing policy for regions and delegate more initiative to them in dealing with their problems. Instead of reforming its regional policy, Moscow keeps speculating on “the U.S.-funded separatist conspiracies” as a perfect argument in preserving strong central government and increasing repressions. This reaction will not solve the existing problems but will encourage new and more radical resistance to the Kremlin’s omnipotent hegemony.