Saturday, January 4, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Approaching Disintegration Part of Broader Wave of Separatism, Kotsyubinsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 4 – President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed the law making advocacy of separatism in the Russian Federation a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. But a leading specialist on Russia’s regions argues that a new wave of separatism around the world will engulf the Russian Federation as well.

            In a new book, “Global Separatism – the Main Subject of the 21st Century” (in Russian; Moscow: Liberalnaya Missiya, 2013, 132 pp.; text at, St. Petersburg historian Daniil Kotsyubinsky argues that the coming century will be a time of separatist challenges to many existing countries, including the Russian Federation.

            Kotsyubinsky’s book is divided into two parts. In the first, he surveys various secessionist movements around the world such as Catalonia in Spain and Scotland in the United Kingdom in order to suggest some of the forces which he argues will lead to the emergence of new secessionist challenges in a variety of places, including some quite unexpected ones.

            In the second and more significant portion, the historian considers how these general forces are likely to combine with those specific to Russia, “contradictions” which he suggests are”pushing [that] post-empire of the ‘horde type’ to its inevitable end” as a country run from a single imperial center.

            According to Kotsyubinsky, the last two centuries of Russian history have been marked by the alternation between efforts by the state to modernize the country which have “inevitably” led to the growth of “explosive internal conflicts” between the authorities and society and between the center and periphery and attempts by the rulers to stabilize the situation that have the effect of blocking “the successful civil-political modernization of the country.”

            But because such attempts at stabilization inevitably have the effect of blocking economic and social development, they ultimately limit the power of the state to do what it wants, Kotsyubinsky continues, and thus cause some in the regime to decide that they have to risk modernization even at the risk of instability.

            From the perspective of the population, especially now, this alternative reflects an existential dilemma: “what should be chosen: the Motherland or Freedom? Or more precisely, which Motherland should be chosen – a united, indivisible and unfree one or a free but territorially smaller one?”

            That choice was recognized by some in late 19th century Russia, by some dissidents like Andrey Amalrik in late Soviet times, and by an increasing number of Russian analysts in the wake of the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.  And despite Vladimir Putin’s claim in 2001 that his actions in Chechnya had ended the possibility of disintegration, such an outcome continues to be recognized even by him -- as can be seen from the measure he has just signed into law.

            Discussions about the possibility of the disintegration of the Russian Federation have prompted some to argue that Russia as a continental empire won’t fall apart in the way that empires with colonies across the oceans did.  That is true, Kotsyubinsky agrees, but such arguments miss the point.

            Paraphrasing Tolstoy, he argues, “all empires are unhappy” because “they are ‘families’ joined together by force,” but at the same time, “each o them is ‘unhappy in its own way.’”

            “The more fully empires are drawn into the process of modernization and globalization, the more quickly and irreversibly are sown inside them the seeds of contradictions – political, economic, social and regional – which sooner or later will destroy the archaic imperial framework,” he writes.

            Moreover, Kotsyubinsky insists, “the fact that Russian statehood has not yet fallen apart is hardly an argument that it will exist into the future in its current borders.” In fact, “just the reverse” is the case becaue “at the beginning of the 21st century, Russia remains an archaic bureaucratic machine incapable of the successful reformation of any aspect of itself.”

            The use of police power can hold things together for a time but only at the cost of modernization and repression, he continues, and “sooner or later,” some in the state will want to modernize in order to enhance their power and some in the society will ask which is more important to them, “the Motherland or Freedom?”

            “The process of imperial restoration whicih began in 1993-1994 and sharply intensified after 2000 has led to a situation in which the level of hypercentralization and vertical integration of the entire state system in the present-day Russian Federation is fully comparable to that which existed in the era of the USSR and in certain respects even exceeds it,” Kotsyubinsky says.

             Such hyper-centralization blocked the modernization of the Soviet Union and ultimately led to its demise, and it will have the same effect on the Russian Federation, he argues.  People outside of Moscow increasingly view that city as “a parasite” on the country and are looking to futures in which they and not those within the ring road will make choices for themselves.

            The center can buy off people for a time but only for a time, Kotsyubinsky says. Ultimately, without economic modernization, the center will lose the ability to do that and as it does the current territory will come apart. Moreover, he suggests, there are additional reasons for expecting that outcome in the coming years.

            The current “unity and indivisibility of the Russian Federation are being preserved,” he says, “not thanks to historical trends with good prospects but rather by a banal system of inertia, the potential for which is disappearing year by year and not being replaced by new vital and creative impulses.”
            The current powers that be may think they are in control for a long time, but “the recent historical experience of the USSR” shows that the radicalization of the population and divisions of the elite “can occur extremely quickly” and, at the same time, efforts to find a compromise with such opposition groups will only lead the latter to make more radical demands.

            Both the authorities and many among liberal reformers discount this possibility. The powers that be think that “the conservative potential of society, passive b definition, can be ‘sublimated’ and made military by combining the spontaneous government feelings of Russian citizens with the ideology of the Uvarov trinity ... adapted to contemporary realities.” And part of the liberal community fear that such an approach by the powers that be will become “a trigger” that will lead to the emergence “from below” of “’Russian fascism.’”

            There is some basis for both these views, but there are reasons to believe that neither is correct.  The Kremlin is “inable of giving birth to a powerful ‘lower’ Russian-nationalist movement,” Kotsyubinsky says, and such a movement even if it was started would be unlikely to lead to the fascism liberals fear.

            The reasons for that lie in the nature of the Russian state and Russian identity, he argues.  “Inspite of the widespread publicistic stereotype, the Russian state is not the historicl product of the Russian people. Instead, the Russian people is an ‘artifact’ which arose as a result of the actions of the Russian state and exists as a single civil-political whole exclusively on the basis of power ‘imposed from above.’”

            As those who served in the Soviet army will remember, Kotsyubinsky says, those who had “Russian” as their passport nationality did not unite as such but rather formed groups on the basis of where they were from: Siberia, Moscow, the Urals and so on. That is still the case for the population of the country.

            “An all-Russian level of self-consciousness exists exclusively as part of a complex with ‘an imperial charge.’” The motherland of a ‘Russian man’ is not a concrete territory with specific borders but ‘limitless and largest country in the world’ at the head of which stands ‘the most important’ ruler in the world (tsar, general secretary, or president) and which is called upon to be the ‘chief power in the world,’” even though that requires a constant sacrifice of “victims.”

            Given that reality, he suggests, it should come as no surprise that no rise of “’national self-consciousness’” from below has occurred. Instead, Russian national self-consciousness as far as its civic-political aspect is concerned “can be compared with the Stockholm syndrome, if one defines the Russian authorities as an aggressor and society as its defenseless victim.”

            As a result, Kotsyubinsky concludes, when the state ceases to be effective, “Russian national self-consciousness immediately ceases to work as a politically motivating factor.” On those occasions, religion doesn’t change that equation as some think, and location becomes “decisive” as far as individuals are concerned.

            According to the historian, this all flows from the “horde” principles which continue to inform relations between the state and the population in Russia and the fact that “the absolute majority of the territories of which the Russian Empire consisted and of which the Russian Federation consists now were unified to one degree or another by force.”

            Many understand the ways in which that history helps to explain national movements among the non-Russians of the empire, but it also explains why “the Russian people, put in simplest terms, represents a combination of the descendents of Orthodox Eastern Slavs ... which at one time were forcibly integrated into the Muscovite imperial statehood” but never formed a self-standing nation.

            That has led to the victimization of the ethnic Russians. “Over the course of the history of Russia,” Kotsyubinsky writes, “the Russian people formally assumed the role of the most privileged group” but in fact was the ethnos “most exploited” and never developed the idea of a specific motherland of its own with clear borders. Instead, it looked only to the empire.

            Many in the Russian regime assume this is a source of strength for them, but in fact, the weakness of Russian national identity means that it is “not too reliable” –and whenever there has been a crisis in state power, Russians have been at a loss to define themselves as a single group until the state recovered.

            But such recoveries, based in almost every case on the use of force, prevent the modernization that the state, the economy and the people need, and thus do not last very long.  That is all the more so because Russians on the basis of their experiences with the powers that be, especially now, are deeply suspicious of the latter.

            And in the next round of the decay of the state, many Russian regions have in the past and will in the future join the non-Russia ones in seeking a way out because their identity is tied more closely to the territories on which they live than to Moscow, however much those in Moscow believe otherwise.

            In each cycle, the number of those going their own way has increased, with  more having done so in 1991 than in 1917 and more likely to do so in the future, Kotsyubinsky says.  Some will view this as “a catastrophe” but others will recognize it for what it really is: a way to promote freedom in a world where “states come and go but regions remain.”

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