Staunton, October 12 – In three ways, the Kremlin is unintentionally taking actions that are giving rise to forces that may prove its Nemesis: It is pushing the leaderships of non-Russian republics into the arms of nationalists there, it is pursuing economic policies that promote rather than prevent separatism, and it is encouraging by its incautious propaganda Orthodox radicalism.
None of these is necessarily fatal – Moscow retains enormous leverage to counter the forces it is producing – but each of them presents the center with problems that a more sophisticated policy could have avoided and that together suggest the Putin regime will be using ever more forceful methods against them.
And that raises a question: at what point will such use of force, against non-Russians, against Russians outside of Moscow, and against Orthodox activists who have taken the regime’s words about the Russian world more literally than perhaps intended, prove counter-productive at well, radicalizing the population rather than intimidating it?
First of all, there has been a fundamental change in Moscow’s nationality policy. For the first 17 years of his rule, Vladimir Putin approached Tatarstan in a way that encouraged republic elites to keep nationalists on their territory in check. Indeed, he offered an implicit deal: if you keep such people under control, I will allow you to act on your own and enrich yourselves.
But in the last six months, the Kremlin leader has not only refused to renew the power-sharing agreement with Kazan that the leaders there had invested so much in but attacked what they see as a basic prerogative, their right to require all residents of the Republic of Tatarstan to learn its state language.
Now, according to some observers, the Kazan leadership who had been playing the Kremlin’s game is trying to protect itself and the republic by turning to the very people it had cooperated in oppressing, Tatar nationalists, in the hopes that they can provide the republic leadership with support (idelreal.org/a/tatarstan-national-karta/28786379.html).
Second, the Kremlin has failed to understand the basic mechanics of separatist movements. People do not normally seek to leave when they are impoverished and have few prospects for the future: they do so when they are doing well and feel they can do even better without having to remain within the existing regime.
If Putin understood that, he would recognize that his fire brigade approach in dealing with impoverished areas is likely to be counterproductive. Indeed, what he views as a guarantee of loyalty may prove exactly the reverse, with regions that are doing relatively better deciding to leave what they may view as a sinking ship.
Thus, one new analysis suggests, separatism within Russia may emerge just as it does elsewhere not among the most impoverished but among those who are doing relatively better or who can see that the wealth they are generating is not staying with them but rather being confiscated by Moscow (afterempire.info/2017/10/11/separatism/).
And third, Putin by his incautious propaganda has released from the bottle the genie of radical Orthodox nationalism not only in the case of Mathilda but on cultural issues more generally. Many are now warning that “Orthodox radicalism is the byproduct of Russian propaganda” (ng.ru/blogs/davydov/pravoslavnyy-radikalizm-pobochnyy-produkt-rossiyskoy-propagandy.php).
Putin has certainly benefitted from some of this upsurge of Orthodox nationalism; but like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, he may find that what he has created could become a threat to him – and at the very least, pose the challenge of putting it back in the bottle before it grows and provokes a new and negative reaction among many Russians and non-Russians as well.