Friday, October 2, 2015

Will Moscow Make Karelia Russia’s Catalonia?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 2 – Last Sunday, two Catalan parties that back independence for their land won a majority in the regional parliament, a decisive step toward independence within Europe and one that many regionalists in the Russian Federation are watching closely, one of their number Vadim Shtepa says.

            In an article in a new Karelian portal, Shtepa argues that “it is indicative that the supporters of [Catalan] independence call themselves ‘independence-ites’ and not in any case ‘separatists,’” a choice that reflects “the very format of European policy” and offers a way forward for many groups (

            The European Union has become “a new political reality which has replaced the formats of individual states, which historically were empires – Great Britain, France and Spain,” and thereby supports federalist arrangements and welcomes “the development of local self-government.” 

                In practice, Shtepa writes, movement in that direction has gone along “parallel paths – on the one hand, all-European structures have arisen, and on the other, dozens of regional parties have taken shape in various countries.” Not only do these processes not contradict one another, but they reinforce each other, with regionalist parties playing “an integrative role in the EU.”

            Consequently, he continues, “it is difficult to call the Catalans ‘separatists’ because they do not intend to leave the European Union, even if they leave Spain;” and even in that case, there would not appear “any borders” between Spain and Catalonia just as there are no now borders among EU member states.

            According to its constitution, Shtepa points out, “Russia is a federal state, and therefore [it] should be similar to the EU in the sense of having a great deal of regional self-administration.” But “in fact, present-day Russia is more like the historical Spanish Empire,” and its leaders confuse regionalism with separatism.

            The Russian government fails to distinguish between the two, despite the fact that all dictionaries show the difference, and bans regional parties as a matter of principle. That just shows, Shtepa says, that “the country is very far from the principles of federalism,” whatever name it uses.

            In Karelia itself, Shtepa says, there is no genuine debate about these things and officials are more likely to engage in conspiracy-mongering than in real discussion, worrying first and foremost about who is behind this or that movement and demanding that any group drop the word regional from its name.

            And they make those demands despite the fact that “the goals of the regionalists not only do not go beyond the framework of Russian legislation but also affirm [the country’s] federal basis,” asking only for free election of regional leaders, support for regional cultural uniqueness, and consideration of the region’s economic interests.

            For some in Russia, such aspirations are the same as separatist demands, but “in reality, Karelian and in general Russian regionalists back the rebirth of the principles of real federalism which were proclaimed at one time in the Federation Treaty,” an accord in which “the regions delegated part of their authority to the center and not the other way around.”

                “When that model was overturned,” he says, “the subjects of the federation were transformed into ‘provinces’ with no rights. The powers that be were appointed ‘from above,’ resources and taxes were carried away, and regional cultural identity became ever more spectral.”

            The current model “hardly can work in a stable fashion,” Shtepa says. “It will generate growing social protests,” but the ones responsible for that are not the regionalists but rather those who deny the legitimate concerns they formulate.  The more Moscow suppresses the regions, the more what Catalonia is doing will become a model for Karelia and other regions in Russia.

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