Monday, July 16, 2018

The Greatest Danger in Helsinki: New ‘Secret Protocols’ or Simply ‘Understandings’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 16 – If the last century of diplomacy teaches nothing else, it is that secret protocols and understandings are a far more dangerous outcome of summits than anything the leaders involved may actually declare, not only because these things conceal what the leaders will do but also because they open the way to radically different interpretations.

            That is the lesson of Munich in 1938; it is the lesson of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939; and it is the lesson of Singapore just a few months ago.  And it is one that should be kept in mind in interpreting whatever comes out of the Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

            Many are going to breathe a sigh of relief if Trump and Putin don’t make the kind of dramatic declarations that would sell out the countries in between in the name of cooperation between Russia and the United States – despite the fact that Putin has already won by having a meeting and Trump has no defensible reason to make any concessions to Putin.

            Because of their own personal styles and domestic constraints, neither Trump nor Putin is likely to be willing to spell out exactly what they have agreed to in public. To do so would not be in the interest of either: If Trump caves to Putin in public, he will spark a firestorm of opposition in the US, something not in Putin’s interest either, given how useful Trump has been for Putin.

            But that doesn’t mean the two won’t agree behind the scenes, perhaps not even as formally as signing “secret protocols” but rather by reaching “understandings” that will have enormous consequences down the line. Thus, any reaction to what the two do in public today will inevitably be premature.

            After all, the worst consequences of analogous agreements earlier weren’t on public view at first. They appeared only weeks or months later – and they were and remain all the worse for that. 

            What is especially disturbing is that Russian commentators are more or less openly speculating about such a possibility.  One commentator calls his article today “The Putin-Trump Pact,” using a term of art which inevitably resonates in the worst possible way for the countries between Moscow and the West (

            And Sergey Markov, a Moscow political analyst, points to another reason that he welcomes but that should disturb others. At this summit, he says, “Trump de facto represents [only] himself and not the American government.” The State Department, the Defense Department and the CAI “all spoke out categorically against this summit.”

            Trump will therefore try to achieve something so as to maintain his narrative that he can do what none of his predecessors could. But he will have to do it in a way that generates support at home without increasing suspicions about his relationship with Putin.  For that, the best arrangement then is not a public declaration but some kind of understanding in private.

            If Trump proceeds in that fashion, Markov says, nothing may be said in public about Ukraine at Helsinki, but “on his return to Washington, [the American president] could pound his fist on the table and demand an end to support for Ukraine. This will lead in a guaranteed fashion to the destruction of the Kyiv regime,” the Moscow analyst says.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

To Defend Their Status, Non-Russian Republics Seek to ‘Brand’ Themselves and Attract International Attention

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 15 Today, Dmitry Stepanov, a longtime Chuvash activist, says, the statehood of his nation is threatened by Moscow’s policies that seek to reduce it to a faceless and interchangeable part of the Russian Federation. To counter that, he argues, the Chuvash must come up with a brand that sets them apart and gives them “global recognition.”

            In a comment for the After Empire portal, Stepanov says, all members of the Chuvash nation saw that as important although they were split on whether that could best be achieved by working to preserve the past or instead seek to come up with a new national brand that would be more future oriented (

            He acknowledges that “until recently, the issue of regional branding in Chuvashia seemed to many as not so important.” But almost everyone in the republic has been asking how it can attract the interest and attention of the rest of the world, something Chuvash increasingly view as the precondition for their survival.

            Some hope to promote Chuvash cuisine; others, national culture more generally; and still others, specific brands and economic ties with other regions and countries.  But two things are obvious to all: Chuvashia has a long and great history and can provide much for reflection by others, and it is under threat.

            With regard to the first, Chuvash build the states of the Huns and the Turkic kaganate. They helped form Greater Bulgaria. They are the nation that gave the world military leaders and cosmonauts, scientists and scholars. And they have a creative young people who win awards outside of the republic.

            And with regard to the latter, their language is under threat of disappearing, according to UNESCO, and their powers as a people are increasingly undermined by the Moscow-centric Russian state.

            For both reasons, Stepanov says, “it is extremely important to establish and bring to the target audience an image which clearly and convincingly distinguishes Chuvashia from all the remaining subjects of the Russian Federation,” a message that must be sent not only to foreign countries but to other parts of Russia as well.

            “The Chuvash nation,” he concludes, “like any other world nation, has the right to independently decide the form of its own state existence, freely establish its political status and realize its own economic and cultural development.” A century ago, the Chuvash demonstrated this capacity.

            “But today, this statehood is under question. And a positive answer must be our global recognition,” Stepanov says. In doing so, he speaks not only for the Chuvash but for all non-Russian republics and many predominantly Russian oblasts and krays.

Republics aren’t ‘a Bomb under the Russian State’ but the Basis for Its Survival, Fayzrakhmanov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 15 -- Moscow leaders are so committed to the idea that republics and federalism offend the proper unitary nature of the Russian state that they won’t impose any punishment on those who call for doing away with the existing federal subjects even as they impose draconian ones on those who question the annexation of Crimea.

            The notion that “the creation on the ruins of the Russian Empire of republics was the greatest historical mistake” is promoted by Vladimir Putin as a historical truth and by Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a situation that must be reverse, Tatar historian Ayrat Fayzrakhmanov says (

            But that idea ignores both history and the current reality that the republics aren’t some “bomb under the foundation of the Russian state” but a reflection of the views of the people and of the objective reality of a state the size of Russia and that their maintenance is a precondition for the survival of the state.

            “If Russia cannot be celebrated for being one of the first to establish a firm democracy,” the historian says, “it is nonetheless possible to say of Russian federalism that it is one of the oldest in the world,” more than a century ago even though this anniversary hasn’t found any celebrants in government structures or “official” scientific structures.

            The first RSFSR Constitution officially recognized as “the primary bases of the state, a republic form of administration, secularism and a federal structure of the state.” It thus completed “the liquidation of the strata state and declared all those constitutional freedoms which are declared to this day.”

            Within this constitution was included the 1918 Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People, a document that specified “at the beginning of 1918 that Russia is ‘a federation of Soviet national republics.” Of course, some of these things were realized while others were suppressed. But that is what was said.

            “Over the course of 75 years, only the republics were the subjects of the Russian Federation,” Fayzrakhmanov continues. “The oblasts were [solely] simple administrative-territorial units.” But now some Moscow leaders want to ignore that and dispense with what they see as “a federalism that Russia doesn’t need” and blaming Lenin for its existence.

            In their view, the Kazan historian says, “it seems that if [the Bolsheviks] had promoted a harsh unitarism or federalism without national republics, we would live in the best country in the world.”  But that ignores that “federalism was introduced in Russia ‘not from above’ … but in essence” from below by the peoples of the former empire.

            In 1917, in fact, “the majority of peoples at their national congresses declared about the need for creating autonomies and the most rapid federalization of the country.” They did this on their own “without the participation of the central authorities.” The Provisional Government tried to stop this, but its actions only provoked declarations of real independence.

            After the Bolsheviks came to power, Fayzrakhmanov says, the Constituent Assembly despite being closed after one day nonetheless was able to declare a federal form of government, “based on a national-territorial principle,” as the foundation of the state. And it called on these nations to convene their own Constituent Assemblies.

            The Bolsheviks’ dispersal of the Constituent Assembly served as the basis for the declarations of independence by Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova and Belarus, he points out. And it led to more rather than fewer declarations of national autonomy within the remaining RSFSR and a tilt toward federal ideas among some anti-Bolshevik White leaders.

            To be sure, he continues, “part of the autonomies really were created on the basis of particular decrees of the central Soviet power.” Thus, “in response to the independent desire of the Tatars to establish a Soviet state of Idel-Ural, the Bolsheviks advanced their own closely related project” that ultimately became the Tatar ASSR.

            This history of founding republics “was not the fruit of ‘Lenin’s thoughts; it wasn’t the result of decrees from the center. Instead, it was a direct continuation of the ideas of national congresses of 1917-1918 about statehood, a continuation of efforts to declare their own autonomy.”

            Thus, then and now, “the preconditions for the disintegration of a federative state are hardly the idea of national republics but the insistence demand of the center to impose on all peoples of the country of common clothes in place of the diversity of the old real and then replaced quasi-federalism.”

            About THAT bomb under the foundation of the state, Mirsaid Sultan-Galiyev spoke already in the 1920s shortly before his arrest. A worker of Stalin’s Peoples Commissariat of Nationality Affairs, he declared that the division of republics into real ones (union republics) and less than real autonomous ones would restore “semi-colonial” relations and lead to explosions.

            According to Fayzrakhmanov, these facts should be recalled periodically to remind all those who see “the entire root of the problems in the Bolshevik federation” of just how wrong they are and how dangerous their denial is as a basis for policy in the future.

            “Under contemporary conditions,” he concludes, “the only possibility for preserving the unity of an enormous and diverse country is not harsh unitarism, centralism and the diktat of the center but the establishment of a situation in which the subjects comfortably and profitably participate in a federative formation.”