Saturday, June 7, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Unless Ethnic Russians have Autonomy, Russian Federation will Disintegrate, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 7 – Unless Moscow gives territorial autonomy to ethnic Russians and ends as much as possible inter-regional transfers of government spending, the Russian Federation “in the near future” will explode in “a civil war analogous to the Ukrainian one” and “inevitably “disintegrate,” according to Mariya Butina.

            In a post on Ekho Moskvy, the Moscow analyst argues that “what is taking place in Ukraine is the logical extension of the mass of inter-ethnic conflicts” which are to be found “on the entire periphery of the post-Soviet space” and within the Russian Federation as well (

            The Soviet system and its updated variants in the post-Soviet states involve “positive discrimination” on behalf of the titular nationalities, she says, something that in turn involves the suppression of and discrimination against ethnic Russians. When the CPSU was strong, that was not allowed to affect politics, but when the communist system weakened, it came to define it.

            Such weakening of central power, she suggests, is “inevitable for any regime, sooner or later,” and hence the tensions inherent in the post-Soviet countries, including the Russian Federation, are bound to break out into the open.

            To avoid such destructive developments in the Russian Federation, she continues, Moscow must take two steps.  On the one hand, it must allow ethnic Russians “in places of their compact settlement to have their own national autonomy, like Chechnya for the Chechen and Tatarstan for the Tatars.”
And on the other, Moscow must simultaneously amalgamate the countries federal subjects into ever larger units and end or at least reduce to a minimum inter-regional transfers of government money. Otherwise, Butina says, Russians will be left in the status of “orphans” in this federal system, will become increasingly angry and will spark inter-ethnic clashes.
Still worse, she suggests, Russia would in that event become the scene of a civil war much like the one in Ukraine “with its territorial disintegration then inevitable.”  Many believe that a strong central government can prevent that, but such a government can do so only while it is strong. “Inevitably,” she says, it will weaken and lead to “a collapse of legitimacy.”
That is what happened in Russia after the Rurik dyanasty, the Romanovs, and the CPSU, she writes, “and there is no basis for supposing that now the situation will be different if the system is not strengthened” by the steps she outlines. The events in Ukraine, Butina suggests, should be both a warning and a guide to action.
Butina puts her finger on one of the most important sources of tension in the Russian Federation, that between ethnic Russians and non-Russians. But her prescription could easily make the current situation even worse by sparking a new upsurge in nationalism among the non-Russian quarter of the population without giving the Russians what they think they deserve.
And that in turn could lead to the disintegration of the country in much the same way that Mikhail Gorbachev’s turn to the right in 1990-1991 did, with both ethnic Russians and non-Russians increasingly convinced that they would not live within the framework of the Soviet Union.
                Moreover, Butin’s words unwittingly recall something else that was said at the end of Soviet times: “The most difficult time for a country in trouble is when it begins to try to reform itself.”  That explains both why governments so often put off reforms and also why such delays, as politically attractive as they may seem, usually fail.

            In short, the Russian Federation is caught in the same trap that the Soviet Union was at the start of Gorbachev’s time: a liberal Russia carved out of it might be possible, but a significantly liberalized Russian Federation is almost certainly an ever greater contradiction in terms.

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