Staunton, September 2 – The protests that led to the demise of the USSR in 1991 and those that shook the Putin regime in 2011 both failed to achieve their stated goals because they remained Moscow-centric and failed to provide an organizational matrix for the development of democratic federalism, historian Andrey Degtyanov says.
There is a risk that the current wave of protests will suffer the same fate, he continues; but there is also some reason for optimism because protests in the regions, as in Khabarovsk, Arkhangelsk, and Bashkortostan, is not only stronger but also because the rising generation in the country is shifting its focus (region.expert/revolutions/).
Like in 1991 and 2011, the younger generation is angry at the older generation for the world that the latter has made or accepted and wants change. But the question now is whether change will come from above, from below or a mixture of the two in which those in charge initiate change but lose control and are replicated rather than replaced at the regional level.
In the early 1990s, there were no mass, country-wide political parties which backed democratic federalism; and after October 1993, the post of Russian president so dominated the situation, Degtyanov says, that it was inevitable that the country would not move forward but backward to a new edition of the Empire.
Today, in Russia, the president is the only “full-fledged subject” in political life. And unless an organized opposition supporting democratic federalism appears, that unfortunate situation is likely to be replicated again and again just as it was in past periods of hope in 1991 and 2011.
Perestroika failed because it lacked “an organized and well-formed political force” that supported the idea of “the Union as a treaty state.” And so when the center collapsed, its authoritarianism was divided rather than overcome, and the stage was set for the restoration of authoritarianism from the center.
Today, as in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russia again is experiencing “a mass demand for honest elections and regional self-administration.” These ideas are widespread, “but there are no regional structures of power which express the opinion of the residents of the regions and no capable regionalist social-political unions.”
According to Degtyanov, if the first is to be realized, the second must be created. And that requires the pursuit of “the replacement of the imperial vertical with an inter-regional horizontal system” based on negotiated agreements and “of a personalist power regime with collegial arrangements.”
Efforts to change the system in 2011 suffered a defeat not because of the actions of the authorities or the Crimean Anschluss, the historian argues, but because the Russian opposition remained Moscow-centric and “ignored ‘the deep Russia’ and lacked any understanding that the regions needed a treaty based on equality.
If that is to be overcome, the regions must take the lead not just by articulating their own unique organizations but also by creating a movement that unites the regions in the name of federalism and democracy. If that doesn’t happen, then the alternatives are more centralism or disintegration.
Degtyanov cites Nikolay Berdyaev’s observation that “a revolution is the reaction of society to pre-revolutionary untruth” and that it is not so much about “overcoming this old untruth” as about paying for the price for it. 1991 paid for the Soviet untruth, but it was not able to overcome it.
The country could have overcome the USSR only if it had been able to sign and implement “a new Union treaty.” But the coup of August 1991 and the suppression of the Supreme Soviet in October 1993 prevented that and led to the restoration of an imperial, centralist and undemocratic system at the center and regional copies.
Only the creation of a new state based on negotiations can Russia hope to overcome the past. Otherwise, there will be yet another imperial reincarnation with its leaders talking about “rising from their knees” and more colonial rule imposed on those parts which are not able to escape from its clutches.
According to Degtyanov, “the goal of the federalist movement” must be the acquisition by the currently “silent provinces” of their own voice and subjectivity. Or to put it in other words, “’deep Russia’ must become not simply a society in itself but a society for itself” and express the will of people across the entire country.