Staunton, March 23 – The Russian annexation of Crimea is sending shockwaves throughout the world including to distant parts of the Russian Federation, and those impulses may ultimately prove to be more fateful to that country than anything else – at the very least, the reaction of Russian officials to them suggest that that is what Moscow fears.
Three things about the meeting are worth noting. First, the words of the organizers highlight how worried many people across the Russian Federation are about the consequences of the Crimean Anschluss. As Nadezhda Nizovkina, one of them, put it, “the majority of the population of Buryatia doesn’t understand how this war threatens us.”
She said that in her view, “the result of the aggressive policy of Russia in Crimea will be the final suppression of freedom in Russia itself.” Noting that Ukrainians “had struggled for their freedom and cultural uniqueness” even as those are being suppressed in Buryatia, she insisted that what is going on is “not only about Ukraine. It is about Buryatia too.”
“We know very well that the Buryat language is being suppressed,” the activist continued. “That language is our national language just as Ukrainian is in Ukraine. Ukrainians now are struggling for their language and for their on state. We must struggle for elements of Buryat statehood.”
Another Buryat activist, Dorzhi Dugarov, put it more succinctly. He said that “the freedom of Ukraine is an example and a hope for Buryatia that it too will obtain its freedom and independence.”
Second, while few in Moscow or the West paid attention to this demonstration, the Russian authorities were clearly worried: The small meeting was surrounded by 150 police and FSB agents, an indication that at least some among the powers that be are worried about what may happen in that republic.
Over the past year, Buryat nationalism has been on the rise. Consequently, at least some in Moscow and Ulan Ude may fear that it will grow into a challenge that could transform that republic from a bridge to a cork on Russian access through the Transbaikal to the Far East, just as it did in the early 1920s and now with a much more powerful China nearby.
And third, this meeting, as small as it was, is a reminder that Putin has put in play within the Russian Federation many of the same forces that destroyed the USSR. Having loosened up the situation in certain ways and even celebrated that loosening, he is now, just as Mikhail Gorbachev did in 1990 and early 1991, trying to tighten the screws.
Not only does that anger many people who see themselves as potential losers from such a shift, whatever Russian nationalist commentators say in Moscow, but it leads entire national communities to conclude that they have no future in a country called the Russian Federation and must, whatever they thought as recently as a month ago, must try to leave if they can.
For a country that has more than 100 different ethnic groups and whose non-Russian areas as defined by autonomous republics and districts encompass almost half of the country, that possibility is inherently unnerving -- even if only a few of the better-placed non-Russian groups try to pursue that strategy.
Gorbachev got it wrong when he used force in Almaaty, Tbilisi, Baku, Vilnius, Riga and elsewhere and lost the Soviet Union when those who believed even more force would save it. Putin is getting it wrong once again and as a result may very well go down in history as the man who lost not the outer empire but the inner one as well.