Friday, December 4, 2015

Regional Identities Strengthening Faster than All-Russian One, Petrozavodsk Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 4 – Vladimir Putin has signaled over the last several years that “all-Russian identity must be formed as ‘a puzzle’ consisting of 85 regional pieces,” Elena Tsumarova writes. But the Kremlin leader has failed to recognize that “any puzzle must include in itself an idea capable of linking the pieces into a single whole.”

            Today, “there is no such idea in Russia,” the Petrozavodsk historian says, and “the patriotic slogans actively disseminated in public discourse are directed more at the struggle with ‘enemies’ but in no way on the creation of a single community in the borders of the Russian Federation” (

            Such a basis for consolidation will not last long, Tsumarova argues, and what will come in its place is “quite difficult to predict.” But one thing is clear: regional elites, both ethnic Russian and non-Russian are promoting regional identities in ways that may ultimately shape or shatter any all-Russian one.

            In an article in the current issue of “Neprikosnovenny zapas” entitled “Unity in Diversity or How Russia’s Regions Preserve Themselves and Strengthen Russia,” Tsumarova discusses the specific challenges facing regional elites and the way in which these challenges have evolved over the last two decades and especially under the rule of Vladimir Putin.

            She notes that in August 2013, the Russian government approved a federal program which called for the strengthening of the unity of the multi-national people of the country and continuing support for ethno-cultural diversity.  As a result, regional elites were charged with two tasks that sometimes have come into conflict.

            “The specific nature of identity policies in the regions is conditioned in the first instance by the distinctive features of the regions as component parts of the state. Regional elites act within definite frameworks, which are set by the structure of interrelationships between the center and the regions,” Tsumarova says.

            Regional “’political entrepreneurs,’” she says, have quite specific tasks: they must form a community defined by the borders of their regions but do so in a way that Moscow does not find threatening. Non-Russian regional elites tend to come down on one side of the inclusive-exclusive divide, while predominantly Russian regional elites come down on the other.

            These choices reflect a variety of factors: the ethnic composition of the population, the political and legal status of the region, the economic situation there, its geographic location, and the type of regional political regime, elected or appointed.  Because so many factors are at work, this process has resulted in extremely diverse outcomes especially over time.

            The coming to power of Vladimir Putin “marked the beginning of a new stage in the development of identity politics in the regions of Russia.” He stressed the consolidation of the Russian state. But, Tsumarova argues, this change in the institutional milieu “led not to the disappearance but rather to the transformation of regional identity policy.”

            When Putin eliminated the direct election of governors, the latter obviously shifted from being primarily concerned about those below them to being primarily concerned about those above them. But they could not function in either Russian or non-Russian federal subjects without worrying at least some of the time about those below them.

            That was clear in places like Tatarstan, the Petrozavodsk historian suggests; but it was also the case in Kaliningrad whose various governors promoted the idea that Kaliningrad could be, because of its geographic location, a special bridge between Moscow and the European Union.

            Regional heads who were sent in from the outside had to be particularly concerned about regional identities, and many of them, dispatched by Moscow to control the situation, immediately found that to achieve that end they had to stress their ethnic and regional linkages as one can see in Karelia.

            If the period between 2000 and 2010 can be described as one of “revenge” by the center against the regions who had gained prominence in the 1990s, the last five years, Tsumarova says, have seen the emergence of a new “third stage in the formation of identity policy in the regions of Russia.”

            The regions have been compelled to worry more about promoting their own identities even as they are integrated with an all-Russian one.  And many of them have done so by promoting an “inclusive” identity encouraging people to identify with both rather than an “exclusive” one which might force them to make a choice.

            The problem for Moscow and indeed for Russia is that Moscow is encouraging the formation of both regional and all-Russian identities but is not doing what it needs to do to create and boost the latter. As a result, there is a very real risk that regional identities will again grow more quickly than the all-Russian ones.

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