Monday, November 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Anti-Separatist Effort Linked to Plans for New Putin Constitution

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 18 – The Kremlin is playing the anti-separatist card to set the stage for the promulgation of a new authoritarian constitution by simultaneously promoting the idea of the closest possible unity between the people and the president and blocking any possibility that regional elites will be able to use discussions about the basic law to boost their powers.

            In an article on last week, Yekaterina Vinokurova says that there has been so much speculation about separatism, its strength and its sources, and about combatting or exploiting such attitudes that it is now time to ask “what is behind the new campaign?” (

            According to the Moscow journalist, the authorities are “concerned about predictions” of the disintegration of Russia, like those made byYevgenia Albats of “The New Times,” but they have decided to counter them less by “repressive measures” than by promoting the idea of national unity.

            She says the draconian anti-separatism bill now before the Duma “probably” won’t be passed, adding that a source “close to the Presidential Administration” who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that the Kremlin has already decided on a whole range of measures to deal with “separatist attitudes” of various kinds.

            According to this source, “the FSB, the procuracy and representatives of the force structures in the localities are involved with the defense of the constitutional order.” There is the Duma bill. And “the Presidential Administration office for social projects, headed by Pavel Zenkovich is involved with promote patriotic attitudes by means of a series of humanitarian projects which will clearly show the importance of the integrity of our country.”

            “For example,” the source continues, there will be more exhibits like “Orthodox Russia—From Tsarist Russia to Our Times,” a step that might play well with the portion of the country that is Orthodox but hardly among Muslims and one that suggests the Kremlin may be more worried about separatist attitudes among ethnic Russians than among non-Russians.

            Maksi Rudnyev, chairman of the United Russia committee in Moscow, tells the Znak journalist that another effort will involve a new project called “The Young Guard of United Russia,” an effort to draw in young people to support the current regime by pointing to the heroes living among them. The regime may even rename schools in honor of these heroes.

            The Presidential Administration source points to two other initiatives that the powers at be plan to take.  On the one hand, the regime wants to use the All-Russian Popular Front to monitor public attitudes and thus serve as an early warning network to allow the authorities to respond to any challenge.

            And on the other, it hopes to sponsor good news in the media through a series of grants to publications and other outlets.  Konstantin Kostin, a former Presidential Administration official who now heads the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, says this will redress the balance of coverage as it now exists.

            “Federal media live by the laws of the market which say that bad news sells better than good.” But the government wants to use grants to create “several spaces which gather ‘good news’ and positive stories in the first instance from the social media.” No instruction will be involved, he says, but it will seek “to show that much good is taking place in the life of people.”

            The underlying message of all this, Kostin says, is that it is possible to debate all public issues but that “casting doubt on the territorial integrity of Russia, the principles of patriotism, and the foundations of the state is impermissible.”

            Experts outside of the government agree with their Kremlin counterparts that the struggle with separatism is important but many of them doubt that the public relations measures the Presidential Administration has proposed will work or even that these measures are the real reasons the Kremlin is talking about this issue.

            Aleksey Chesnakov, the former deputy secretary of United Russia’s general council presidium, said that by exhibitions alone, Moscow won’t solve the problem.  It needs to come up with ideas that are attractive and that promote civic identity. What the powers need to answer is “what does it mean to be a citizen of Russia?”

            Aleksandr Morozov, a political scientist, says that he does not see “any real threat to the territorial integrity of Russia” and therefore assumes that the whole issue is being talked up in order to help “resolve other political tasks of the Kremlin.”

            Prominent among these is the possible reform of the Constitution.  Putin wants to create a “’moral majority’” that will support him against regional officials and thus make it easier to adopt a new basic law.  Such officials must not be allowed to use discussions about a constitution to expand their own powers. Hence, Morozov says, the talk about “separatism.”

            And Aleksandr Kynev, head of regional programs at the Foundation for the Development of Information Policy, says that the talk about separatism is a reflection of the Kremlin’s recognition that it has to come up with a basis for mobilization other than just the “negative” ones it has used so far.

            They’ve “decided,” he says, to push forward the theme ‘let us unite in order not to allow the disintegration of the country.’” There are anti-Moscow attitudes in the region, and they will only grow as the center cuts subsidies to the regions and republics.  Talking about the threat of separatism will limit such grumbling or at least keep it out of public discourse.

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