Thursday, August 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: 30 Border Conflicts Simmering Among Russia’s Federal Subjects

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 8 – At the present time, there are approximately 30 territorial disputes among Russia’s federal subjects, a situation that makes changing borders anywhere a such an extremely dangerous proposition  that one Moscow commentator calls these conflicts “a slow acting bomb under Russian sovereignty” as a whole.

            Indeed, Ruslan Gorevoy argues in “Novaya versiya” this week, “this process represents “a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the country” and recalls the parade of sovereignties at the level of union and autonomous republics that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 (

            One of the clearest signs of that earlier conflict was the appearance of special republic currencies, some of which are still kept in banks and others, as in Karelia this week, are appearing for the first time. (On the new Karelian “rune,” see

            In addition, Gorevoy continues, “initiative groups are appearing here and there which are calling for a collective change in place of residence, and this phenomenon in certain subjects, such as Perm kray or Saratov oblast are already beginning to acquire a scope that is no laughing matter.”

            As a result, “there are concerns that the hour is approaching when the quantity of such local conflicts will pass into a new quality, a ‘parade of sovereignties’ analogous to that which led to the disintegration of the USSR in 1991” – only this time at the level of smaller or at least constitutionally subordinate units.

            The most prominent and unpredictable of these internal territorial conflicts is that between Chechnya and Ingushetia over two districts that both nations and their leaders claim.  The border between them was never established formally but rather arose when the two broke apart as the Soviet Union crumbled.

            As Gorevoy points out, “ethnic Chechens never lived in these places in the past and there is not one Chechen grave there, something that in the Caucasus is a very important factor.”  That means that “the Chechens have no basis for pretensions to these lands,” and one local expert says that as a result, “for Ingushetia, the question is closed” and one hopes it is for Moscow as well.

            That may be true of the federal center, but it is certainly not the case for Grozny and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  He continues to insist that these are Chechen lands and that the Ingush are responsible for all the problems. To solve them, he says, the Ingush must withdraw from Chechen territory and then talks can begin.

            But the Chechen-Ingush dispute is only one of many, and in some of the others, a far more ramified system has been proposed to resolve them.  Under existing federal law and local practice, three referenda are required for any change in the status or borders of any particular federal subject or its subordinate parts.

            The first referendum must be among residents of the district that wants to separate from the oblast,, kray or autonomous republic. The second, if the first is successful, must occur at the oblast, kray or republic level; and the third in the subject of the federation “to which those separating would like to join.”

            Recently, Gorevoy notes, a group of residents of Chaykovsky petitioned the governor of Perm kray to allow them to transfer their city to neighboring Udmurtia because the distance between Chaykovsky and Izhevsk is only 90 kilometers while the distance between their city and Perm is 250.

            If that becomes the basis for such claims, the number of places which may seek to change their political subordination could escalate dramatically. But the number may also increase because in some cases, more than one district wants to leave one federal subject to another but not join another

            In May, for example, five districts in Perm kray discussed leaving Perm kray not to become part of another federal subject but to form “a new Verkhnekamsk oblast or “perhaps an autonomous republic,” even though it would appear that there are “no obvious economic or ethnic reasons for such local separatism.”

            Most Moscow officials remain dismissive of this problem, Gorevoy says. He quotes Boris Gryzlov of the Russian Security Council as having insisted that “territorial disputes inside the country will not lead to its disintegration” because of all the work that has been done “over the course of recent years to strengthen the power vertical.”

            But outside observers are more sanguine, the “Novaya versiya” writer says, and he points to the studies of Pavel Bayev in Oslo, Olga Oliker and Tanya Cherlik-Paley at RAND, and even the US Central Intelligence Agency which has predicted “the beginning of the territorial disintegration” of Russia “in 2015.”

             Gorevoy appends to his article a list of some of the less well-known territorial disputes within the Russian Federation: one between Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk over the status of the Olkhon island in Baikal, another between two suburbs of Moscow, a third between Moscow city and Moscow oblast over control of the capital’s airports, a fourth between Kalmykia and Astrakhan oblast over pasture lands, a fifth between Kurgan and Sverdlovsk oblasts over two districts, a sixth in which part of Ulyanovsk oblast is seeking to join Samara oblast, a seventh in which residents of parts of Leningrad oblast want to join St. Petersburg, an eighth in which Novosibirsk seeks to become a federal city like Moscow or the Northern capital, and a ninth in which Stavropol kray seeks to escape from the North Caucasus Federal District.

            None of these by itself is necessarily a dangerous threat, but their cumulative and demonstration effects could easily create a situation in which Moscow’s response to any one or to a group of them could trigger the kind of conflict that really could tear the Russian Federation apart.

            But in the short term, at least, the most important consequence of these various conflicts is that their existence almost certainly will act to restrain Vladimir Putin and those around him who have said that they would like to amalgamate Russian regions. Any step in that direction now could lead to demands from others that could have consequence Gorevoy suggests.

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