Friday, December 4, 2020

Putin’s State Council Another Nail in the Coffin of Russian Federalism, Sidorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Some thought that the inclusion of the heads of federal subjects in the State Council as Vladimir Putin suggested almost a year ago would lead to the strengthening of federalism in Russia, but in fact, the legal theory underlying the State Council represents the legal death knell of the federal system, Kharun Sidorov says.

            It throws the Russian Federation back to the situation the Russian Empire was in after the Speransky reforms established a State Council for the tsar two centuries ago, one in which all officials were simply representatives of the autocrat and had no independent status, the Russian commentator says (

            Although the recently passed legislation creating the State Council is silent on many issues, it is clear on the legal theory underlying it, Sidorov continues. It is based on the principle of having “a single system of public power.” Many have seen this as eliminating a special status for municipalities, but it eliminates that of republics and regions as well.

            What that means is that “before us is the completed power vertical, which has existed de facto for a long time but was given legal form only in 2020 as a result of the Putin amendments to the Constitution and the adoption of the law on the State Council,” both of which have been approved in rubber stamp fashion by the Constitutional Court.

            Such “’a common legal space’” means, Sidorov says, reinforces the idea of “unity and indivisibility” of the population and of its political space, the Russian Federation as a whole. “The multi-national status of the people of Russia” has thus been reduced to something purely “declarative.”

            “In the process of forming the post-Soviet Russian statehood, many republics within the Russian Federation proclaimed their sovereignty” on the basis of their right of national self-determination; and these declarations were recognized explicitly in the 1992 Federative treaty and in the 1993 Russian Constitution, even if they were not respected.

            But “from the new formulations, we see that Moscow understand ‘the multi-national people of Russia’ not as a combination of nation states but in essence as a single nation of a unitary state and for it ‘multi-nationality’ is a synonym for poly-ethnicity which has been stripped of any political content.”

            This attitude reflects the fact that the inclusion of governors in the State Council does not increase federalism but eliminates yet another aspect of it. Most governors are now appointed by Moscow and those that are not are harassed or criminally charged so as to prevent them from representing their regions. And being in the State Council won’t change that.

            As a result, Sidorov continues, “the State Council in its current configuration is needed not so the regions or even more local self-administration can form the policies of the federative state but on the contrary so that ‘the center’ which already for a long time has been at the head of a unitary state will find it easier to control  them.”

            What Putin has thus done is what Mikhail Speransky did in 1810 when he created a State Council for Alexander I, putting in place an institution that would make it easier for the autocrat to control the entire country and signal that no local arrangements were to have any standing unless the tsar personally agreed to them.

            Just over two centuries on, Sidorov concludes, Russia has come full circle, employing what looks like a representative body to deny the component parts of the country any representative or self-standing. 

Moscow’s Frequent Replacement of Leaders in Makhachkala has Done Little to Decriminalize Daghestan, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Moscow is on its fourth leader in Daghestan in the past decade, something that highlights the growing importance of that North Caucasus republic in the center but that has done little or nothing to decriminalize the situation or put the republic on the path to economic growth, Sergey Zharkov says, summarizing the views of experts.

            The analyst for the Prague-based Caucasus Times says this reflects both the specific nature of Daghestani society and politics and problems beyond its borders, including the ways in which the strength of clan-based criminality there is linked into and protected by criminal authorities in Moscow (

            As a result, Zharkov suggests, Moscow’s constant seeking out of new republic heads reminds one of “a change in the decorations in a theater where most of the actors remain the same.” Republic heads change, but despite some high profile moves by them, political and social arrangements below them continue much as they did before this last decade.

            “None of the last three leaders of Daghestan, including Magomedsalam Magomedov, Ramazan Abdulatipov, and Vladimir Vasiliyev, served to the end of their terms,” he says; but despite that, the council of ministers consists mostly of the same people in the same positions they occupied when these changes began.

            This is likely a general problem with Moscow’s approach to regions: it changes the person at the top at will but can or chooses to do little to ensure that the new leadership really addresses local problems and introduces change. But at the same time, Daghestan because of its nature may present an extreme case of this.

            It is the largest, most densely populated, and most multi-ethnic federal subject in the country, and it is the only one that does not have a single titular nation but rather four large and several dozen smaller ethnic groups. As a result, each governor faces the same problem as his predecessors: “the struggle with clans” based on these communities.

            What each governor has done is to go after one or two high profile individuals but then to allow the system to continue more or less unchanged.  But now, as a result of the pandemic and the Karabakh war and its aftermath, that may not be enough because Daghestan’s importance has grown as port on the Caspian and oil processing center has increased dramatically.

            According to Eduard Urazayev, former nationalities minister in the republic, the new governor Sergey Melikov may feel pressure to do something more but so far more than half of his senior aides are people who have been in power since Abdulatipov’s time, raising questions about his intentions and even ability to act.

            Melikov has made one declaration that suggests he will adopt a new approach soon, Murtuz Durgichilov, former head of the Daghestani service at Radio Liberty. The republic head said that under him, “the popular assembly will be structured according to the ethnic pattern of the republic, but the government of Daghestan will be formed by professional standards.”

            The former will preserve the ethnic balance in the republic, while the latter, if in fact Melikov acts on it, will mean an entirely new approach, one that could destabilize the situation and make Daghestan more of a problem for Moscow than it now is. And there is a larger problem as well.

            If Melikov does challenge the ethnic balance in the republic government – and as the first Lezgin in the top job there in more than a century, his own person represents a threat to many – then instability is likely. And more than that, because the republic’s ethnic clans have protectors in Moscow, it could unbalance political relationships there.

            History suggests that the new governor may take some high-profile actions but won’t go too far lest he come into conflict not only with forces in his own republic but in Moscow as well. If he steps over the line, some at the center will likely work to remove him, actions that will only continue the kaleidoscope of power in Daghestan.

            And while yet another new leader may arrive, he too will find himself far more constrained than he could have imagined. As a result, Daghestan is likely to continue to live its own life, no matter how much some in Makhachkala or Moscow would like to see significant change.

Census Results Likely to Lead to More Reductions in Non-Russian Language Instruction

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Among the reasons non-Russians are worried about the upcoming census is that their numbers may decline outside of their republics and the leaders of other federal subjects will use those declines to justify further cuts in the number of schools where such languages are offered and the number of hours of instruction in these languages.

            A roundtable in Orenburg this week shows that they have genuine cause for concern ( and

            Orenburg is an especially sensitive place as far as Bashkirs are concerned. Until 1925, the republic had a common border with Kazakhstan; but Moscow carved out an ethnic Russian oblast – Orenburg – in order to block Bashkortostan and other Idel-Ural republics from having an external border.

            That was the ostensible basis for Moscow’s denial of union republic status to the six republics of the Middle Volga, but in the last several years, the issue has resurfaced with activists in that region and further afield calling for Bashkortostan to recover “the Orenburg corridor” and thus open the way to independence (, and

            These efforts have not yet taken off, but people in the Middle Volga continue to focus on the size of the Bashkir and closely related Tatar communities in this potential bridge region. The two now number roughly ten percent of the oblast’s population, according to the most recent census; and officials have been cutting back on the amount of instruction in their languages.

            If the 2021 census shows a further decline, it seems reasonable to expect that more cutbacks in Bashkir as well as Tatar language instruction will follow and even increase.

            At the roundtable, Bashkir deputy education minister Alfiya Galeyeva said that the situation is dire: Only 249 children are receiving any Bashkir-language instruction in only nine schools in Orenburg. She said Bashkirs in Orenburg have told her they are worried that school consolidation, known in Russia, as optimization, will worsen their situation.

            Despite her concerns and those of the people with whom she spoke, Aleksey Pakhomov, the Orenburg oblast education minister, insisted that what is going on is the result of “natural demographic shifts.” When the numbers of children speaking a language decline, there will be less demand for instruction in it.

            “According to our data,” the Russian official said, “the optimization of schools and the closing of them in small population centers with pupils transferred to larger educational institutions is a natural process, in the course of which, the number of children studying Bashkir will contract.”

            It may be “natural” from his perspective, but it is worrisome to Bashkir parents. And they have good reason to believe that if the upcoming census shows their numbers to have declined and the size of the population centers where they live to have declined as well, there will be even less Bashkir education in Orenburg than ever before. 


Pandemic Growing Threat to Russia’s National Security, ‘Zavtra’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Zavtra warns the pandemic is posing an ever greater threat to national security because it is increasing distrust in the authorities, involving violations of individual rights, leading to fears of increased control, and infuriating people over distance learning and employment, making protests and other forms of instability more likely (

            The pandemic continues to spread and grow ( Russia set a new record for deaths from the coronavirus today, with 589 lethal outcomes being recorded. The authorities also reported that they had registered 25,345 new cases of infection, bringing those totals to 41,053 and 2,347,401 respectively (

            The number of schools reported in quarantine nearly doubled over the last 24 hours, with 56 percent of Russians telling pollsters that they were tired of having children being kept at home and taking classes online ( and

            Vladimir Putin said the country’s healthcare system was expanding to take care of the increased number of coronavirus infections (, but despite that and despite the beginning of vaccinations next week, many localities, including St. Petersburg, are imposing tough new restrictions on all places where people might gather (

            Looking forward to end of the year parties, about half of all employees said they would attend company parties if reasonable precautions were taken, but nearly a third said they would not because no restrictions at such functions would protect them from infection  (

            Vladimir Putin announced the mass vaccinations will begin next week and that two million doses are ready for that ( and Other officials said 100,000 Russians had already been vaccinated ( It appears that many of the first to get the vaccine are uniformed military (

            The authorities continue to say that they will meet domestic needs first and that the program will be completely voluntary for all groups ( and But the state media is fearing ever more scare stories apparently intended to convince people to be vaccinated (

            On the economic front, experts say the decline in Russian industry is accelerating again (, with one sign being a more rapid decline in the use of public transportation ( Bicycle riding, however, has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.

            Meanwhile, in other pandemic-related developments in Russia today,

·         The Supreme Court has ruled that Russian business people have the right to refuse service to anyone not wearing a mask (

·         Consistent with patterns elsewhere, the pandemic has increased the total workload of Russian women more than it has of Russian men (

·         Some epidemiological models suggest there will be a third wave of the pandemic after the second ends and that then the coronavirus will become a seasonal disease like the flu (

Thursday, December 3, 2020

In 2020, the Russian Empire Died ‘Once and for All,’ Tsipko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 1 – The year 2020 may be remembered for many things, including the pandemic; but perhaps its most important development has been the final disintegration of the USSR and more than that the moment at which the Russian Empire died “once and for all,” Aleksandr Tsipko says.

            “The disintegration of the USSR was no geopolitical catastrophe,” pace Putin, the senior Moscow commentator says. “A catastrophe is when something living, whole and powerful dies which otherwise could have continued to exist for a long time.” That was not what the USSR was (

            It was created by force of arms, and it disintegrated in an entirely logical way. The Baltic peoples who had experienced independence more recently decided to leave, while the Central Asians who had been given statehood moved more slowly. It was the fate of the two other Slavic peoples that was the most dramatic because Russians couldn’t accept they were separate peoples.

            But to recognize that the empire has been falling apart, while essential, does not mean that “we Russians have the right to accelerate this disintegration” by our own actions. Unfortunately, both 30 years ago with the rise of Russian sovereignty and more recently, Russia and Russians have done exactly that.

            According to Tsipko, “behind the illusion that the Russian Federation could maintain its dominating influence on the post-Soviet space and save ‘the Russian world’ stands an inheritance from the Soviet ‘educated community’ that its members have not yet entirely overcome.”

            It is not enough to recognize that the former republics want to move away from Russia; it is vitally important that they want to return to “that ethnic and cultural world in which they lived before they were included in the Russian empire,” the Moldovans toward Romania and the Azerbaijanis toward Turkey to give the two most obvious cases.

            That people in Moscow do understand this reality at least in part helps to explain Russia’s correct decision “not only to distance itself from the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Qarabagh but also to devote all efforts to avoid a military clash with Turkey,” a signal and significant event.

            What is means is that Russian officials are maturing and finally recognizing that Moscow isn’t going to re-assemble all these countries into some new empire. Some countries need Russia still, like Armenia, but even Armenia now looks at Russia as an alien power given its failure to back Yerevan against Baku.

            What this all means, Tsipko continues, is that in this year, 2020, “the Russian Empire really died once and for all. And therefore we must think first of all about the interests of our own country and about how to make Russia richer and a country where many people will be happy.”

            “Russia even now can achieve a very great deal on the post-Soviet space as a peacekeeper, but hardly should we risk our own economic interests in the name of our own Russian utopia.” And again there is evidence from the last few months that Moscow is finally learning that lesson as well.

            “In my view,” Tsipko says, “the disintegration of the USSR was accelerated as a result of talk of our ‘fatherland officials’ about how the borders of the former Soviet republics bear an artificial character.” Now, finally, in the Caucasus, Moscow has turned away from such dangerous comments.

            “Russia today is required not only to speak about the inviolability of the borders of the Russian Federation but also about the inviolability of borders of the former Soviet republics.” That is why Vladimir Putin de facto did in coming out in support of the restoration of Baku’s control over Azerbaijani territory.

            Being clear about that will reassure many non-Russians, but we have to mean it, Tsipko says. “It is time … to say that we today are above all interested in the development of the Russian Federation as a nation state and that we today give primacy not only to our own sovereignty but to our economic interests.”

            Perhaps, he concludes, “if we really transform ourselves into a successful nation state in all senses of the word and become a fully European country, then the peoples of the former USSR will again begin to look in our direction.” But that is a matter for the future; it is not what Moscow should be expecting and acting on now.

Three Features of Lukashenka Regime have Kept Its Officials from Joining the Opposition, Belarus Security Blog Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 1 – Belarusian protesters have expected officials to break with the regime and join them, but this hasn’t happened because of three features of the Lukashenka regime, according to the Belarus Security Blog (

            First, Lukashenka’s selection of officials and use of security agents to keep track of what they are thinking means that many of the officials aren’t inclined to break with the Belarusian leader and fear what might happen to them if they so. A few in fact have joined the protests, but far too few to break the regime.

            Second, Lukashenka has promoted a quasi-Soviet ideology which his subordinates are supposed to accept. Many in fact do at least for public consumption; and that ideology which holds that the supreme leader must be obeyed for the country to survive is one that many officials accept to this day.

            And third, the Belarusian president has set up multiple structures, including siloviki of various kinds and trade unions to keep people in line. Anyone who might be thinking about joining the demonstrators only has to look around him to see that most of his colleagues aren’t doing so and that those who have only thought about taking that step have suffered.

            The Belarus Security Blog expands on these points in two ways, Minsk’s Yezhednevnik says. On the one hand, the supervisors in the regions and in Minsk are subject to three systems of control, two of which are directly subordinate to Lukashenka. And the siloviki themselves are controlled by an even more ramified system of five kinds of subordination.

            As a result, “officials and siloviki themselves find themselves under the control much broader and harsher than even the political opposition,” controls that are often beyond the capacity of outside observers to imagine because they are much more stringent than those experienced by protesters in the streets.

            Underlying all of this, the Blog continues, is that officials in the Belarusian regime are accustomed to working in a vertical system in which someone gives an order and others obey while the opposition is above all organized along horizontal lines, something officials and siloviki find incomprehensible.

            “The absence of a hierarchy within the protest movement means that it is impossible for it to mobilize resources necessary for the supply and support of alternative structures of administration,” the Blog continues. That is something officials and siloviki see and feel and are alienated by.

            But the opposition bears some responsibility for the fact that employees of the state have not come over to its side. Up to now, the Blog observes, the protesters have not developed any special message for these people who need to be told what will happen to them once Lukashenka passes from the scene. They fear losing their positions if they lose their boss.

            And as much as many may not want to acknowledge it, the Blog says, “a significant part of the state apparatus sincerely believes in Alyaksandr Lukashenka and that he is defending the country from foreign aggression.” Overcoming those convictions without some special program is going to be very hard.


Putin System ‘Pathetic Symbiosis’ of Republic Forms and Monarchical Content, Inozemtsev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 1 – The Russian political system has institutions which outwardly resemble those in Western countries, but “it acts as a tyranny, one indifferent to the needs of the population” to such an extent that hospitals now ask the Russian people to bring doctors “not only medicine and masks but even food,” Vladislav Inozemtsev says.

            And this “pathetic symbiosis” is getting worse rather than better with opposition figures being driven into exile, the bureaucracy building palaces and filling its pockets, and “favorites” of the ruler using state property as if it is theirs by right, the Russian economist continues (

            The Russian people are “permitted to a greater or lesser degree to love their rulers which we by custom call ‘the authorities,’ without trying in any way to understand the sources and limits of their powers.”  Indeed, anyone who raises such questions is viewed as having committed the crime of lèse-majesté.

            The main problem of the Putin system, Inozemtsev continues, is “not its amorality,” although that surely is in evidence “but its ineffectiveness.” Democracies and monarchies each can be successful, but the attempt to combine the two elements undermines any possibility of progress.

            But is especially damaging to Russia, he says, “is not the absence of democracy – it never existed here and won’t in the future” but rather something else, “the unending lies about ‘the separation’ of power and property.” If they are truly separated, a country can develop as the West do; if they are formally combined as in eastern tyrannies, countries can also achieve something.

            However, if the system proclaims itself one thing on the basis of its formal structures but fills those structures with a content that subverts them, there is no such possibility, especially now after oil and gas revenues have collapsed and the regime’s failed response to the coronavirus has revealed its limitations.