Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Support for Federalism and Ethnic Russians in Ukraine Creating Problems for Moscow at Home

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 19 – Vladimir Putin’s push to transform Ukraine into a genuinely federal state and his invocation of the state of ethnic Russians as the reason for his intervention in Ukraine is having an impact at home, leading some to ask why federalism should be only “an export good” and others to demand that Moscow protect ethnic Russians domestically.

            One Russian regionalist says that those who support the development of real federalism can only cheer Putin’s call for the development of such a system in Ukraine because “this ‘export’ variant of state administration is clearly better than the one Moscow offers its own regions (

            Indeed, Sergey Kornyev argues Putin’s model for Ukraine, which includes direct voting for regional legislative and executive bodies, recognition of regional diversity, fiscal federalism, and the right of regions to develop ties with foreign countries could be a model for Russia itself (

            While there is no indication that Putin plans to promote such federal arrangements in the Russian Federation – which remains a hyper-centralized state that is federal is name only – the Kremlin leader’s advocacy of it for ethnic Russians and others in neighboring Ukraine is likely to encourage regionalist and federalist advocates in Russia itself.

            On the one hand, Putin’s proposals for Ukrainian federalism are implicitly ethnic and intended to protect ethnic Russians living there, but in the case of the Russian Federation, such proposals are likely to be invoked as a defense of existing non-Russian republics or even as the basis for giving these republics more rather than les authority.

            And on the other, Putin’s notions about regionalism are certain to give aid and comfort to regions like Siberia or St. Petersburg which see themselves as distinct from Moscow in terms of interests and identities, even if the center currently refuses to recognize these distinctions or the ideas of such groups about how the Russian Federation should be divided.

            None of this means that Putin is about to federalize Russia: that is not his not his goal and he will not be the first leader to insist on political approaches abroad very different from the ones that he imposes at home.  But like others, he cannot avoid having his words heard by an audience different than the one he intends or having them invoked in the name of goals he opposes.

            That is even more the case with the Kremlin leader’s arguments concerning the importance of defending ethnic Russians in Ukraine, arguments that are already echoing among ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation which Putin’s claims not withstanding has a population in which non-Russians are at least a quarter of the population.

            Russian nationalists have been overwhelmingly support of Putin’s intervention in and absorption of Crimea and his pressure on Ukraine more generally, but some of them have invoked the Kremlin leader’s Ukrainian policies in ways that he could not possibly approve of and is likely to work hard to suppress.

            On March 4, Roman Romanenko, a Vologda journalist, called on Putin to introduce forces into that region for the same reasons as in Crimea, “to free the Russian-language population living in the region from occupiers who have seized power with the help of dishonest elections” (

            Arguing that the rights of ethnic Russians were being trampled upon there, Romanenko said that those among them who are ill “cannot get the necessary medicines and treatment, the level of education is falling with each passing year, and kindergartens and crèches are being closed. Agriculture is practically destroyed and we are all suffering a great deal.”

            A day later, a group of ethnic Russians in Tver oblast also called on Putin to introduce forces in their oblast arguing that the situation of Russian speakers in that overwhelmingly ethnic Russian region is “much worse than in Crimea” and requires radical measures to be taken if the Russians are to be saved (

            In part, of course, these appeals may have been little more than a kind of protest against Putin’s policies in Ukraine by highlighting how absurd they are if taken to their logical conclusion, but in an indication that they may be more than that, Russian officials are taking no chances and are cracking down hard on those putting them out (

                One reason for such official concern is that leading Russian nationalists are making the same point more generally.  Konstantin Krylov, for example, says that if one follows Putin’s logic on Crimea, “the introduction of Russian forces into Russia would be much more justified” because “the Russian movement is being suppressed and de-Russification is taking place” (

                In addition, Russian nationalists like Dmitry Demushkin are invoking Putin’s policies in Ukraine to argue that Moscow must single out ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation as an object of concern and defense rather than continuing to treat them as part of some kind of non-ethnic civic Russian people.

            Given how multi-national the population of the Russian Federation is, the dangers of doing so are obvious, as Academician Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, has repeatedly pointed out. But that isn’t stopping the Russian nationalists. Instead, his arguments are enraging them, especially after Crimea.

            Things may soon come to a head at an official level.  The session of the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations scheduled for May of this year is supposed to focus on ethnic Russian issues, but according to some experts, that meeting may have a problem even before it opens.

            According to Vyacheslav Mikhaylov, a member of the council and a former nationalities minister, organizers have “not been able to find a single figure who could speak in the name of the Russian people,” an indication of just how dangerous and explosive this issue has become (

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