Friday, January 18, 2019

Three Cases Where Some in Russia Copy Others in Ways Moscow Doesn’t Want


Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – The USSR did not fall apart because of any one action by the Soviet leaders or because of any one action by one or another individual or group in the population. Instead, it fell apart when officials or activists in one place began to copy what others elsewhere had done.

            This demonstration effect proved to be so powerful that the central authorities were ultimately unable to control it.  That is what makes three developments in the last few days in the Russian Federation so intriguing because all of them suggest that this pattern of unwanted copying is one again becoming a hallmark of Russian life.

            This is not to say that this trend necessarily points to the disintegration of Russia; but it is to argue that Moscow for all its power is losing control of the agenda in many parts of the country, even if it appears to have the ability to intervene and prevent this kind of copycat “crime” from spreading everywhere.

            The first and potentially most explosive case of this is the result of a decision by a Chechen court to cancel massive debts of people in that North Caucasus republic for communal services, an action that Grozny apparently took to prevent Chechens from going into the streets and protesting.

            This has sparked outrage among many Russians because it is yet another case where Chechnya appears to view itself as a special case not subject to the rules that govern everyone else (kp.ru/daily/26931.7/3981091/ and rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=83241). But it has had another consequence, one likely to be even more unwelcome in the Kremlin.

            Other regions are now arguing that they should be allowed to do what the Chechens have done (meduza.io/news/2019/01/18/deputaty-smolenskoy-oblasti-poprosili-prostit-zhitelyam-dolgi-za-gaz-po-primeru-groznogo-gde-spisali-devyat-milliardov-rubley and lenta.ru/news/2019/01/18/dolgi/).

            That confronts the Kremlin with a Hobson’s choice: If it intervenes to reverse the Chechen decision, it risks not only offending Ramzan Kadyrov but also sparking demonstrations that could turn violent in his republic, something that Putin can ill afford at the present time given his assertion that he has “solved” the North Caucasus problem.

            But if Moscow doesn’t intervene against the Chechens in this case, it will face the prospect that ever more regions will demand the right to do the same thing. If it allows that, it will face a financial disaster; if it doesn’t, Moscow will alienate many Russians who will see that in Putin’s Russia, they and not the Chechens are the real second class citizens.

            The second case involves the success people in Tambov have had in forcing the authorities to close a trash dump and even firing some of the officials responsible for the mishandling of that increasingly neuralgic issue. The Tambov residents appear to have been inspired by protests in the Russian North and elsewhere who face similar problems and demand similar remedies (mbk-news.appspot.com/region/zhiteli-tambovskoj-oblasti/).

            Again, this leaves Moscow with no good options. Whatever it does, it is going to offend some people in the Russian Federation and make it more difficult for the center to control the situaiton.

            And the third case involves a non-Russian republic copying what the government of the Russian Federation has said is its right but no one else’s.  Moscow has been promoting the idea of a common non-ethnic Russian identity, but it is horrified by the prospect that any non-Russian republic might do the same.

            That has no happened: Vasil Shaykhraziyev, the deputy prime minister of Tatarstan, has said that the world views all the residents of Tatarstan as Tatars, not in the ethnic sense but in the political one, a simple extrapolation of what Moscow wants to do for all the residents of the Russian Federation.

            Russian commentators are outraged: Moscow can talk about a civic identity, but no non-Russian republic can (iarex.ru/news/63509.html and vz.ru/question/2019/1/17/959833.html).  The central authorities are likely to try to nip this in the bud, but if they do, they will pay a price: Ever fewer non-Russians will be willing to identify as non-ethnic Russians.

            That is because by such action, the Russian powers that be will be demonstrating what many have long suspected and even argued: Moscow may claim that it is talking about a non-ethnic identity, but in fact, they are investing it with so much Russian content that it will be ethnic in all but name.

            Consequently, what may seem to many to be the least important of these three cases of copying could turn out to be the most important and threatening to the center just as the efforts to promote non-ethnic identities in the union republics of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s copied but undermined the notion of a unified “Soviet people.”

Between ‘Who is to Blame?’ and ‘What is to Be Done? Russians Now Ask ‘What are They Hiding?’


Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – The two eternal “cursed questions” of Russia are “who is to blame?” and “what is to be done?”  But in recent months, they have been joined by a third, “what are they hiding?” That is because with the collapse of trust in the authorities given their propensity for lying, Russians have become convinced the powers that be are “hiding” the truth.
           
            A headline today on the Regnum news agency is typical of such feelings: It declared that “School No. 627 in Moscow has been closed as a result of quarantine?” and then asks not who is to blame or what is to be done but rather the now almost inevitable “what are they hiding?” (regnum.ru/news/society/2555089.html).

            What are they hiding is both less and more disturbing as far as Russian officials are concerned.  It is less because it does not identify anyone for Russians to target their anger about what is happening around them or even more encourage those who ask and answer it to take action in order to achieve change.

            But it is more for two reasons. On the one hand, the frequency with which Russians are asking this question shows that an increasing number of them no longer believe anything officials say and assume that officials at all levels are lying either outright or by hiding something that the Russian people should have the right to know.

            And on the other hand, asking and answering this question can lead those who do to move from this passive aggressiveness to more active moves. Indeed, the more often they feel the authorities are lying to them or hiding something, the sooner this is likely to happen, an outcome that all those in power from Vladimir Putin on down must reckon with. 

Russians may not be ready to march against the authorities, but they have already put themselves beyond being mobilized or even led by them. And having separated themselves in this way, it will take much less than many imagine for them to ask and answer the two other questions and then take action against those who have been “hiding things” from them.

Residents of Village Moscow Transferred from RSFSR to Belarus in 1964 Don’t Want to Be Part of Russia


Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – In one of his last acts before being removed from office, Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 transferred a village from the RSFSR to the Belarusian SSR. (Indeed, official notification of this change in the border between the two republics only occurred after his ouster.) Now, residents say they have no desire to be part of Russia or controlled by Moscow.

            Aleksandra Dynko and Dzmitry Gurnevich of Radio Svoboda’s Belarusian Service visited the small village of Oslyanka near the Belarusian-Russian border to find out how its 25 residents feel about the possibility of Belarus being absorbed by Russia or the two countries uniting in some common state (svaboda.org/a/28238438.html).

                The village is an old even ancient one, mentioned in histories as early as 1654. A mill was built in 1667 and a church in 1737, but now there is not even a store. Instead, residents get their food from a tuck that comes three times a week.  Many of the houses are deserted, although some of those fill up in the summer months with vacationers.

            Dmitry Ovchinnikov, 89, who taught in the local school from 1952 to 1996, recalled that the residents of the village actually petitioned Moscow to be transferred from the RSFSR to the Belarusian SSR because at that time, Russian law gave villagers far less land for cultivation than did Belarusian.

                Another resident, Dmitry Yegorovich, has a Russian passport and a daughter living in Smolensk. He could easily have moved to Russia, but he said he didn’t want to. “If things were better there, then he would have gone long ago.” But for the moment at least, life is better in Belarus than in Russia and so he has no interest in moving or becoming part of Russia.

            And a third resident, Vasily Zakharovich says that life in the village became worse “’after Gorbachev,’” as a result of which, many villagers left. His children, he said, have lived in Minsk for a long time already.  He and they visit each other frequently.