Staunton, September 29 – Even though Vladimir Putin like Joseph Stalin has moved to recentralize power in Moscow more than any other Russian leader, the current occupant of the Kremlin like his Soviet predecessor relies on the non-Russian republics as a major support for his party of power.
In the 1920s, Stalin never won a vote in the communist party organizations of the major Russian cities until long after he had complete control over the party organizations in the non-Russian republics, a pattern that was made possible by his work as nationalities commissar and that likely predisposed him to maintaining the USSR’s national-territorial structure.
Putin came to power via a very different route. He was appointed by Yeltsin and from the beginning was committed to bringing the non-Russian republics, starting with Chechnya, to heel and eliminating what he and his regime routinely refer to as “asymmetrical federalism” in which the non-Russian republics have more rights at least on paper than do Russian regions.
But despite those differences, Putin like Stalin has made use of the non-Russian republics as a power base at least with respect to Duma elections. In those just completed, the republics turned out to be “more loyal to the party of power” than did the Russian regions, not to speak of the major cities.
However, it is almost certain that unless something changes radically, the non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation will not benefit from their loyalty to Putin any more than the non-Russian union republics of the USSR benefitted from their support of Stalin. Indeed, what Stalin did to them should be an object lesson for what non-Russians can expect from Putin.
That pattern has enormous implications both for Putin and his regime and for the Russian Federation as a whole at least in the short and medium term, and some of the most important of these are explored in a new commentary by Ayrat Shamilin of Radio Svoboda’s Tatar-Bashkir Service (idelreal.org/a/28016705.html).
There are many reasons for “the phenomenon of loyal republics,” the commentator says. The republics are even more dependent than the regions on subventions from the center and thus want to win its favor. And in the absence of regional parties, supporting the party of power appears to many to be the best way of achieving that end.
The problem, Shamilin says, lies not with the national elites and national republics as such; but rather in the way in which Russian political life has developed under Putin. First of all, there has been “the extreme personification of power and the low rate of its rotation,” something that makes it easier for national elites to accept Moscow’s personified power arrangemetns.
Second, while the party of power has not articulated a pro-non-Russian position, its neutrality on this question is less offensive than the negative attitudes reflected in some other parties, such as the openly Russian nationalist LDPR, which received only one-third the level it received for the country as a whole in the non-Russian republics.
And third, the elites in non-Russian republics are more concerned with maintaining a balance among ethnic groups and thus inter-ethnic peace than in promoting democracy which could undermine that situation. Thus, by supporting United Russia, these elites “position themselves as a guarantor of inter-ethnic peace.”
Unfortunately for the republics, they have not gotten very much back for their support. Except for Chechnya, they aren’t getting more subsidies from Moscow per capita than are predominantly ethnic Russian regions. They aren’t getting support for national cultures and languages. And they aren’t getting positions of authority even in the Duma.
As the economic situation deteriorates and the center collects less money and thus has even less to re-distribute, Shamilin concludes, a demand for “real federalization and a serious regional policy” will grow, something that means at least some republics will see a return to the kind of treaties they had in the early 1990s.
“This is important,” he says, “not only for the republics themselves but also for Russian democracy. Real politics will become significant for the republics only if their problems appear on the agendas of various parties and if they are as a result heard.” Until that happens, the non-Russian republics are likely to serve as a reliable base for Putin’s party of power.