Saturday, April 5, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Crimea Re-Energizing Centrifugal Regionalism in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 5 – The constant invocation by Russian officials of the right of peoples to self-determination in the support of the Kremlin’s policy on Crimea is “inspiring Russian regionalists to call for the self-administration of their territories” and is being regularly invoked by them as “a precedent.”

            As a result, Ulyana Ivanova writes on the portal, regionalism has become not only “a fashionable trend” in Russian society but also “a centrifugal force” that opposes the hyper-centralization of the country and the increasingly repressive policies of Moscow (

            Two week ago, she notes, the Ingermanlanders of St. Petersburg proposed holding a referendum on joining the northern capital to Lichtenstein, a call clearly intended to make fun of Moscow’s referendum in Crimea but one that was “supported with enthusiasm” by the Republic Movement of Karelia.

            Because of that and because of the fact that “in Russia in contrast to Europe, ‘regionalism’ has a clearly expressed ethnic character,” Ivanova says, she decided to examine how such “centrifugal tendencies” have emerged across Russia and “what our compatriots intend to do with sovereignty.”

            She first considers the Ingermanlanders or the supporters of “Free Ingria,” a group that seeks the transformation of St. Petersburg and Leningrad oblast into “an autonomous republic with the chance for further self-determination.”  The group says it reflects the existence of “a special Ingermanland identity” of people in that region.

            Ingermanlanders divide the population of Russia into “European” and “Asiatic” parts, argue they are part of the former which traces its roots to the Novogorod republic, and say that “the Asiatic portion is connected with the times of the Golden Horde, the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible, and is concentrated in Moscow.”

            The group arose in 2005-2006 as an Internet project, but it has drawn in many members of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia, including scholars, journalists, teachers, musicians and artists. It has its own rock back, the Electric Partisans, and its own record album, “Ingermanlandia.”And its activists regularly take part in opposition demonstrations.

            A second regionalist group is the Free Karelia movement, which is an Internet project centered in Petrozavodsk and represented by Vladimir Shteppa.  Intially, Ivanova says, its members “fantasized” about an independent republic but more recently they have sought to “’de-virtualize’” their group and make its demands more immediate and concrete.

            Now among its slogans, she continues are “Return Kizhi to Karelian Jurisdiction” and “Karelian Names in Karelia.” Moreover, they have sought to attract attention and tourists with plans to produce their own Karelian currency, the rune, and to hold a Midsummer Festival like St. John’s Day.

            The Karelian regionalists say they are for “the development of the unique ethno-cultural identity of the republic which combines Karelian, Finnish, Wepsy, and North-Russian roots.” And they insist that they “no not divide people of the republic by nationality but consider them a single people.”

            The authorities in Karelia have refused to register Free Karelia because they say it is a regional political party, something prohibited under Russian law, and recently Petrozavodsk prohibited the group from using the word “regionalism” in its documents or demonstrations.

            A third example of regionalism in Russia, Ivanova says, involves Kaliningrad. Any separatist impulses there are driven by social and economic factors rather than ethnic ones and reflect the exclave’s close ties with the EU. One manifestation of its regionalism is that those who can afford it send their children to study in Germany, Poland or other EU countries.

                The first regionalist organization in Kaliningrad was the Baltic Republican Party which arose there in the early 1990s, a period which Ivanova describes as “relatively free.” It explicitly called for Kaliningrad to be renamed Koenigsberg and to become an independent country. As a result, in 2003, Russian officials banned it.

            But, Ivanova continues, a new public movement, “Respublika,” was created and “pursues exactly the same goals.”  The group seeks to promote a distinctive ethnic identity, “the Balts,” which they see as genuinely European and thus very different from other ethnic Russians. At the same time, however, it has taken part in various Russian nationalist protests.

            A fourth case of regionalism involves Siberia and Siberians.  Regionalism there has its roots in the 19th century oblastniki movement which sought independence on the model of American independence from Great Britain and which was suppressed by tsarist officials only to reemerge during the Russian Civil War and again since the 1980s.

            Siberian regionalists attracted attention when they promoted identification as Siberians on the nationality line of the 2010 all-Russian census.  Officials said only about 4,000 people made such a declaration, but activists say that far more did so but that the census officials did not record them.

            Besides bloggers and young people who view Moscow as the enemy and seek autonomy or even independence, there are, Ivanova says, several “serious regionalist organizations” in Siberia who promote a regionalist identity and want Siberia to control its own resources rather than see all the profits shipped to Moscow.

            According to Ivanova, “the majority of Russian regionalist movements have arisen in response to the harsh centralization of power in Russia which has deprived the regions of even the smallest amount of self-administration.”  That explains why in these groups are not to be found nationalists and revolutionaries but members of the intelligentsia and young people.

            Although most remain “informal net projects,” she continues, the regionalist movements are “stimulating the young to study the culture of their native places and awakening interest to the peoples who live there.”  And they are important in another way: in non-Russian areas, regionalist impulses often oppose rather than support ethno-national ones.

            Thus, “regionalists conceive any nationalism as an obstacle to the development of [their] territory.”

            At present, any suggestion that regionalism threatens the territorial integrity of the country is a serious “exaggeration.”  Regionalists in the main “are not demanding anything supernatural – only free elections and the chance to spend the resources of the region on its own needs.”

            “Unfortunately,” Ivanova says, “under current political conditions, discussions on this theme are viewed by bureaucrats and law enforcement officials as ‘something threatening.’” And that is likely to get worse when on May 9 the new law on separatism goes into force.  At that time, she says, official actions may transform innocent bloggers into “dangerous extremists.”

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