Saturday, January 7, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Replacing a ‘Bad’ Tsar with a ‘Good’ One By Itself Won’t Save Russia, Shteppa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 7 – The December protests highlighted not only the gulf between Russia’s urban population with its European values and the country’s longstanding imperial traditions “based on lifetime power for the tsar or general secretary” but also the failure of the protesters to recognize that simply replacing a bad tsar with a good one won’t same Russia.

            This gulf has received enormous attention in the Russian media with many hoping that the values of the former will overwhelm the latter, but the failure of the protesters to recognize that simply electing a good president in place of a bad one will not by itself prevent a return of the imperial tradition.

            But that failure, what may happen if it is not overcome and what could to be done to ensure that it will are  the subject of an intriguing essay by Russian regional affairs analyst Vadim Shteppa entitled “An Interregnum or a Federation?” carried yesterday on the “Russky zhurnal” portal (

             “The main distinguishing characteristic of the December meetings,” he suggests, was “the sharp contrast between the new ‘urban class’” which defines itself in terms of its commitment European values  and the imperial tradition of Russian statehood which is based on lifetime power for the tsar or general secretary.”

            Despite the existence of decorative monarchies in many European states, he continues, “real power there belongs to regularly replaced governments, but present-day Russia in contrast is again being drawn to autocracy.” Indeed, what is taking place now recalls what occurred in 1990-91, something that those who want a liberal Russia should be reflecting upon.

            Twenty years ago in Moscow, Shteppa points out, “equally massive demonstrations took place” largely consisting of people who assumed that having done away with “the Soviet one-party system,” Russia would “return to the civilized world. But ‘the return’ turned out to be entirely different and in places extremely grotesque.”

            In post-Soviet Russia, a “synthesis of the Soviet and the monarchical” occurred “with tsarist authority of the president, the tricolor, subordinated to the melody of the Bolshevik hymn, and religious leaders playing ever more the role of the former ‘ideological departments’” of Soviet times.

            The current demonstrators appear to be laboring under some similar misconceptions, Shteppa continues.  “Many of them now are much more concerned about the looming presidential elections,” apparently hoping that “the arrival of a good tsar in place of a ‘bad’ one allow Russia to prevent the return of authoritarianism as indeed happened after 1991.

            Yet another failure of the demonstrators, he says, is that they failed to take note of protests outside the ring road or dismissed them because of their small size.  But there were many meetings and their relatively small size reflects “one of the main consequences of imperial hyper-centralism when many active and educated people leave their own regions for Moscow.”

            (Moreover, Shteppa points out, many of the participants in the Moscow protests were not native Muscovites but rather precisely such active and educated citizens from regions outside of the capital.)

            Had the Muscovites taken notice, they would have seen that among the demonstrators in other cities on December 10 and 24 were people carrying “regional flags, including those of Siberia, Ingermanland, Karelia and Kaliningrad (For pictures, see

            This current failure by the Moscow opposition to take note of these protests recalls that of many in the Soviet capital 20 years ago “who did not want to notice the Baltic, Belarusian and Ukrainian flags.” This also suggests that what is happening now is “the restoration of a certain liberal ‘vertical’ which of course will be better than the authoritarian one, but will entail the very same centralization” and have lead to a repetition of the cycle.

            And that is the case, the regional affairs writer argues, even though many Russians will remember “how the liberal Yeltsin ‘vertical’ was converted into the authoritarian Putin one.” To allow Russia to escape from “’an eternal return of empire,” Russia needs to focus on “the regionalist transformation of the country.”

            “In other words,” Shteppa says, “instead of the drafting of a single program ‘for all right now,’ people should concentrate on the resolution of the problems of their own regions” through the direct election of governors and mayors, an end to “financial hyper-centralism,” “the free registration of regional parties” and the like.

            Unfortunately, many in Moscow view such calls as the first step toward “separatism,” out of a conviction that “normal multi-party democracy in various regions will ‘split the country.’”  That is absurd as European experience shows – indeed, there strong regional democracy helps preserve existing borders, Shteppa insists -- but it is typical of imperialist thinking.

            If Russia had “normal regional self-administration,” there would be no risk of the country falling apart as “ties among the regions are much stronger than was the case in the USSR.” But if the new opposition wants freedom only for its federal parties, then “Siberians and Kaliningraders might ask: why do they need the continuation of this colonial power.

            Contrary to what many in Moscow understand, “the greater the imperial quality [of the state], the greater will be separatist attitudes.” But if the regions “can make use of their own resources and taxes, freely choose their heads and parliaments, then the question as to who will win in the March elections will completely lose its imperial ‘fatefulness.’”

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