Saturday, August 8, 2015

Even the Mention of Sovereignty Frightens Russian Officials in Karelia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 8 – Tomorrow, Karelians will quietly mark the 25th anniversary of their republic’s declaration of sovereignty. Today, interior ministry officials called in some of those making plans to do so to warn against such actions, an indication, Vadim Shtepa says on Facebook, that even the recollection of sovereignty frightens Moscow.

            On August 9, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Karelian ASSR adopted its declaration of state sovereignty, part of the so-called “parade of sovereignties” that swept through the RSFSR and USSR at that time. The Republic Movement of Karelia plans to mark this round anniversary and the concurrent date of the Day of Indigenous Peoples with a music festival, KarjalaFest (

            The planned festival will be relatively modest – with a buffet in a local café and a performance of Karelian folk and rock bands to follow – but the very idea of holding it and the ideas that some of its organizers are expressing has clearly unnerved officials who called them in today to warn against anything that might be extremist.

            Vadim Prokopyev, the leader of the Republic Movement of Karelia, says that his group “decided to conduct this festival in order to remind residents of Karelia about this historic date” because “the further centralization in the country proceeds, the less authority remains in the regions and the worse life becomes.”

            According to the activism, Russia’s regions, including Karelia, are ever more becoming wards of Moscow. But “we remember what an outburst of economic activity and international relations took place in Karelia in the 1990s when the first president of Russia suggested to the regions that they should ‘take as much sovereignty as they could swallow.’”

            Unfortunately, Prokopyev adds, after that time, “a harsh centralization of power began, and we see what this can lead to in Karelia in the current economic situation.  It seems to us that the federal center needs to delegate to the regions much more authority. This will promote the strengthening not only of the regions but of the federation itself.”

            In a sympathetic commentary on this anniversary, Karelian writer Valery Potashov says that the 1990 declaration unfortunately has proved to be one of “unrealized possibilities” and that both Karelians and Russia as a whole should reflect upon why that is so and what the costs have been as a result (

Potashov begins by pointing out that in June, Karelia marked the 95th anniversary of the Moscow decree on the formation of the Karelian Labor Commune, a date that is now considered in Karelia as “a state holiday, the Day of the Republic.”  But it would be more logical to adopt August 9th as that holiday, given the Karelian declaration of 1990 and on the model of the Russian Federation’s June 12th Day of Russia.

            “It is interesting,” the Petrozavodsk writer says, “that the draft of this [1990] document was published in ‘Leninskaya Pravda,’ which then was the organ of the Karelian obkom of the CPSU and in fact was the official publication of the autonomous republic. Could anyone imagine something similar in Karelia today when even an incautious phrase of a deputy … about the possible separation of the republic if Russia doesn’t need it, is considered the occasion for the initiation of a criminal case?”

            Potashov continues by observing that “the former chairman of the presidium of ht Supreme Soviet of the Karelian ASSR and the first head of the Republic of Karelia proclaimed in 1991, Viktor Stepanov, recalled later that in those times no one raised the issue about the possibility of the republic getting state independence.”

            Instead, Stepanov pointed out, “the authorities in Karelia wanted only more rights as far as the administration of their territory was concerned, because up to then almost everything had to be decided in Moscow.” When it succeeded in getting some of those rights, things got better in Karelia and very quickly.

            During the 1994-1998 period alone, more housing was built in Karelia than in the previous 30 years, Potashov notes, and Karelia dramatically expanded its industry and trade with Finland. Today one can only imagine where Karelia would be if it weren’t for the harsh centralization Moscow has insisted on since 2000.

            Unfortunately, “for the quarter century which has passed since the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Karelia, it has remained a subsidized territory incapable of earning enough not to depend on financial help from Moscow or live by its own means without falling into debt,” the Karelian commentator says.

            And consequently, if one looks back at this period of Karelian history, he concludes, “one can say that the republic really had a chance which it has not been able to use.”

            Many will view this moderate and elegiac comment as an indication that Moscow and Vladimir Putin have won, but in fact, as at least some in the Russian center understand, such moderation and such regret may form the basis for a broader challenge to the center than the more radical declarations of some ethno-nationalist writers.

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