Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Hyper-Centralization Provoking Separatism, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 11 – Separatist attitudes are intensifying in Russian as well as non-Russian regions of the country less because of the actions of regional or ethnic movements than because of the anger many people feel about the increasing centralization of power and wealth in Moscow, according to a Tatar analyst.

            In an article this week on the independent Chuvash journal “Irekle Samakh,” Nail Gilmanov, a Tatar from that Middle Volga republic, says that proposed legislation to impose criminal sanctions on “separatism” is so poorly drawn that it will be used in the first instance by the powers that be against their political opponents (

            Moreover, the draft laws clearly violate the Russian Constitution and basic human rights because they outlaw the discussion of self-determination, a concept that is far broader than simply about the pursuit of state independence.  And these bills, precisely because they do that and fail to address what is behind separatist ideas, very likely will provoke more of it.

            As Gilmanov points out, “the main thing for each people is to have the opportunity by a democratic path to define its future and independently decide questions which are vitally important to it. Among these are the right to the use of native language, the right to the use of the natural wealth of the region, the development of national culture, the system of national education and national media.”

            “If all these issues are resolved in the framework of a federative state, then there will be few demanding complete independence,” he says, pointing to the experience of many other countries. Indeed, “separatist slogan are an indicator that all is not well in the sphere of national or regional policy.”

            In many cases, people use them not to advance a cause but “only as a method of attracting attention to problems of national or regional development or as a response to the actions of federal authorities who have undermined the rights of residents of ‘the provinces.’” And that use must be clearly distinguished from others.

            According to Gilmanov, there are two main causes for the fact that separatist comments are becoming more common in Russia today.  First, in non-Russian regions, there has been a massive closure of non-Russian-language schools, calls for “the liquidation” of republics, and for “a Russia for the [ethnic] Russians.”

            People are angry, he continues, but at the present, “there are no political forces really preparing to seek the separation of any region from Russia or even legal mechanisms for that to happen.” Thus regional or national separatism can hardly “completely destroy” the country, but it “does represent a real threat to the imperial unitary system of power.”

            The second “and chief” cause of separatist attitudes lies in the nature of “Russian ‘federalism’” itself, Gilmanov says.  “The concentration of power and money in Moscow and the harshly centralized bureaucratic system of the administration of the state do not correspond to the interests of ordinary citizens beyond the borders of the capital.”

            At present, “the regional authorities politically and economically are controlled by the Kremlin, the lion’s share of taxes and oil and gas revenues go to the federal budget, and the majority of major regional companies belong to Moscow oligarchs,” he writes.

            “The basic function of the federal center thus involves the control over financial flows and the redistribution of incomes from taxes and the earnings from the export of natural resources” and the use of such money for “imperial projects like the Olympics in Sochi and the World Cup in 2018.”

            Regional leaders are forced to try to extract resources they’ve sent to the center back to their regions, an “extremely ineffective, corrupt and absolutely unacceptable” system that puts a brake on “the normal development of the regions” and cannot fail to generate “dissatisfaction, one of the forms of which are calls for the separation of the regions from Russia.”

            The current arrangements are stable only if prices for oil and gas are high, the political activity of the majority of the population is low, and the force structures are prepared to defend whatever the Kremlin wants.  But “genuine stability and the development of the country” is possible only with strong regions and real federalism, including fiscal federalism.

            The regime’s talk about separatism is intended to open the way for less federalism rather than more, but such a move will provoke even more discussions of it. Obviously, most of the Muscovite bureaucracy will support such efforts because they are the immediate beneficiaries. But not all are, and consequently, some discussion is still possible.

            Obviously, Moscow is not the only cause of separatism, Gilmanov says. Ethnic issues in places like the North Caucasus are contributing factors. “But these exception only underscore the main argument” he is making.  If a law imposing criminal sanctions on discussions of separatism passes, it will be used successfully against the opposition but not against separatism as such.

            Indeed, the Tatar analyst concludes, “in attempting to suppression national and regional movements,” Moscow will “be freezing natural political processes and blocking the development of the regions.” That, and not any calls for “separatism” as some in the Duma understand it “will lead Russia to collapse.”

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