Monday, October 1, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Economics Not Ethnicity Said Powering Separatism in Russian Federation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 1 – Economics has largely replaced ethnicity as the motive force behind separatist challenges to Moscow’s rule of the Russian Federation, with large numbers of people in many predominantly ethnic Russian regions believing that their territories are being treated as colonies, according to a Moscow analyst.

            In an article published in “Argumenty Nedeli,” Denis Terentyev argues that Moscow is “still asleep” as far as this challenge is concerned, but he argues that “if at the start of the 21st century, the power vertical saved Russia from disintegration, today it is the chief cause of the local discontent” that is defining “an entire generation” (

            “Millions of residents of Kaliningrad, the Urals region, Siberia, the Far East and even Petersburg are certain that their small motherlands are Moscow’s colonies,” that the corrupt powers in Moscow run things for their own benefit and that the interests of the population are thus ignored.

            Up to now, the “Argumenty Nedeli” analyst suggests, “there has not yet been the manifestations of separatism that strike everyone in the eye,” but he continues that such feelings are quite capable of “blowing up the country when oil and gas prices far or a change of elites begins. 

            Separatist attitudes in and around St. Petersburg are somewhat of an exception because that region which some call Ingermanland does not have its own petroleum reserves.  But some residents there believe that as an independent country, they could become part of the European Union and live better by means of tourism, ports, and intellectual products.

            Sergey Achil’diyev, an historian, told Terentyev that if in the past, Peteersburg separatists talked about how their Europeanness set them apart from the rest of Russia, “today there have arisen more concrete demands” because of the destruction of the city’s “historic center, censorship, bureaucratization, and the lack of protections for property owners.”

            The historian added that at present those who believe the solution lies in the creation of a separate state “do ot present a serious political threat.” But he continues, “radicals will get a chance with the powers weaken,” especially since “dissatisfaction” with them has been growing for many years.
            And he pointedly reminds Terentyev that “those union republics which did not have any separatists at the beginning of perestroika nonetheless separated themselves from the USSR.”  And he continues that “today the entire country is certain that it is feeding Moscow” rather than the other way around.

            Terentyev points out that there is some evidence the powers that be in Moscow are taking note of this as when the center spent 20 billion US dollars in the Russian Far East before the Pacific summit. But such spending “did not have the desired effect” on the 6.2 million people in that region.

            Instead, he adds, “people there say that the Kremlin is like a husband who comes home drunk for severalyears but then once appears carrying flowers.”  That doesn’t impress Far Eastern residents whose average income is about 23,000 rubles (780 US dollars). Instead, it may only encouragethem to step up their demands.

            Yuri Kuz’min, a Vladivostok economist, points out that existing Russian laws mean that “fish costs more” in that Far Eastern city than it does in Moscow.  And he says that Moscow’s effort to prevent Chinese penetration by setting up a 500 kilometer zone where nothing can be built is only accelerating outmigration from the region.

            Moscow has no reason yet to fear “separatists” or “the Primorsky partisans,” the economist suggests, “but the powers need to be afraid of something else: two-thirds of the young people [in Russia’s Far Eastern region] have never been in Moscow and do not have any desire to visit [the Russian Federation capital].”

            Aleksandr Abramov, a professor at the Far Eastern Financial University, says that Moscow needs to invest more in the region and attract more people there, something it has signally failed to do. Worse yet, he adds, “Moscow considers [in the wake of the Pacific summit] that it has already given the Far East a great deal.”

            But people in the region know that most of the construction for the summit was done by imported Tajik workers and that because of massive corruption “the bridge to Russky Island cost more than three times as much as a similar bridge would in China.”

            An Irkutsk sociologist, Vladimir Shanorov suggests that in Siberia and the Far East “the first question in business is who is the potential partner: a Siberian or a Muscovite,” with most people in the Far East viewing even those from Petersburg, Bryansk or other portions of European Russia as “a symbol of a colonial regime.”

            According to media in the Urals, Terentyev continues, right now about 20 percent of the population would vote to separate from the Russian Federation. And according to various reports, he adds, the number of people who declared themselves to be “Siberians” in the last census may have been as many as four million – a huge share of the population there.

            Yevgeny Royzman, an activist in the Urals, suggests that any push for secession might be triggered by local force structures and heads of regions who increasingly resent, as did many in Soviet times on the periphery of the USSR, the fact that their decisions, their business interests and even their jobs are at the mercy of bureaucrats in distant Moscow.

            The situation in Kaliningrad is similar, Terentyev suggest. Many in that non-contiguous region of the Russian Fedeeration resent the suppression of their free economic zone. And the population is increasingly focused not on the center but on Europe: 70 percent of Kaliningraders have foreign passports, “and the greater part of youth have not seen Moscow.”

            Terentyev concludes with a warning about economic-based separatism that at least some in Moscow are likely to take seriously: “The collapse of the USSR was instanteous and unaffected. And today’s Russia depends far more on world markets and on the price of oil,” things Moscow cannot control.

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