Russia’s regions are in revolt
While Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrates 20 years in the Kremlin and poses as a powerful world leader, his Russian Federation is showing increasing signs of fracture. Although a Ukraine-type revolution in Moscow to overthrow a corrupt authoritarian regime seems unlikely, a revolt of Russia’s diverse regions against a despised central government is gathering momentum.
Winston Churchill’s memorable insight about Russia at the outset of World War II – that its actions were “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – needs updating. Putin’s Russia is a declining state, camouflaged in external aggression to disguise its internal fragility.
Russia’s economy has been stagnating for several years, living standards continue to decline and poverty is increasing. Demographic statistics reveal a shrinking population with high mortality, low fertility and rising emigration. Russia’s population has dipped from 148 million after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s to about 142 million today. This total will fall to around 128 million by 2050 and an increasing percentage will be neither ethnic Russian nor Orthodox Christian.
Although Russia defines itself as a federation, in reality it is a centralized neo-imperial construct that, unlike Britain or France, has failed to dismantle its empire and develop a modern civic state. The Federation consists of 85 federal subjects (including the illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol), of which 22 are republics representing non-Russian nationalities, including the Middle Volga, North Caucasus and parts of Siberia, northern Russia and the far eastern provinces. Even in regions where ethnic Russians predominate, a growing number of residents feel alienated from Moscow and are consolidating their unique local identities.
Despite Western hopes, Russia’s urban democrats are unlikely to transform the country. Instead, it is regionalists, autonomists and pro-independence groups who are increasingly challenging Putin’s authoritarian and colonial rule. Regional restlessness is based on an accumulation of grievances, including economic stagnation, official corruption, exploitation of regional resources, attacks on language rights and threats to eliminate or merge federal units. Instead of pursuing decentralization to accommodate regional aspirations, the Russian government is downgrading their autonomy.
The federal structure primarily benefits a narrow elite of political police, bureaucrats, oligarchs and regional governors appointed by the Kremlin. Moscow extracts maximum resources from the regions with minimal investment in a crumbling local infrastructure. Without regional autonomy, investment and local control of resources, the federal structure will become increasingly unmanageable and public resistance will mushroom.
During the past year, mass protests have grown in size and frequency, whether against dumping Moscow’s trash in the northern Arkhangelsk and Komi regions, economic exploitation and curtailment of the national language in Tatarstan and other republics, the building of Orthodox cathedrals in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, the falsification of elections in Buryatia, the appointment of outsiders as governors in Kalmykia and other republics, the arbitrary changes of borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia or growing ethnic tensions in Dagestan fueled by unpopular government decisions. Almost any issue can trigger demonstrations against Moscow’s rule and accelerate demands for autonomy and even separation.
A process of awakening is evident in Siberia, the Urals, the Far East and the Far North, where there are growing distinctions with Muscovites even among people viewed as Russians but who settled generations ago and developed distinct local identities. Several of Russia’s federal units possess the natural resources and favorable location to become independent economically once they terminate their exploitation by Moscow. Trade and investment from neighboring European and Asian countries can significantly develop regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia, Tuva, Sakha, Magadan and other parts of Siberia and the Far East.
Activists who began their protests with a focus on a single issue such as pollution or corruption are broadening their agenda and increasingly challenging the foundations of the centralized Putinist system. As regional turbulence escalates, local governors could be swept out of power unless they commit themselves to strengthening their republics or regions. In the next stage of resistance, dozens of Russia’s regions could coordinate their demands and push toward autonomy or independence. Simultaneous actions by numerous federal units would weaken Moscow’s attempts to extinguish each movement, as happened during the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.
Washington needs to remind the Kremlin that the West possesses much stronger social and national bonds than Russia because they are based on democratic choice not enforced uniformity. While Moscow seeks to divide the West and foster political conflicts in each democratic state, Washington has the ability to respond much more effectively by supporting regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a powerful signal to a belligerent but ultimately fearful Kremlin that the West will prevail over Russia’s subterfuge, sabotage and subversion.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.