Staunton, February 22 – A major reason that Moscow has reacted so hysterically to Andrey Piontkovsky’s statement that Russia has been transformed into a greater Chechenya is that the Russian commentator has pointed to something “everyone knows but no one wants to admit,” according to Vitaly Portnikov.
The Ukrainian commentator argues that “the Russian Empire in contrast to other empires of the past has always tried to adapt itself” to its new borderlands beginning with the absorption of Ukrainian lands and ending with the re-conquest of Chechnya, “changing the form of the metropolitan center in favor of the borderlands” (charter97.org/ru/news/2016/2/22/192158/).
Thus, “the ‘Chechenization’ of Russia” of which Piontkovsky speaks is “only a detail of a general picture” of what has taken place again and again in Russian history, Portnikov argues, and of something that has happened more than once in the post-Soviet period as well despite all the talk of Russian centricity.
He suggests that what happened in Tatarstan in the 1990s is the clearest possible evidence of this. Tatarstan in many ways stood apart from what was going on elsewhere in Russia, the Ukrainian commentator suggests. After August 1991, “Russia was a country learning democracy but Tatarstan was simply a renamed Tatar ASSR in which were preserved all the customary system of interrelationships of state and society, all the party-state vertical.”
Portnikov recalls speaking with Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev at a time when it was becoming clear that for the next while at least, Tatarstan would remain part of the Russian Federation, and seeking to find out how the Kazan leader would adapt to that situation in the future.
He says he expected Shaimiyev to obfuscate with talk of some kind of “’complex of measures’ for democratization.” But instead, he turned the tables and asks why Portnikov “considered that Tatarstan must become like the rest of Russia?” Perhaps,” Shaimiyev said, “Russia should become like Tatarstan given that it has an effective system of administration.”
The succeeding years “showed that Shaimiyev was right,” the Ukrainian commentator says, and the elections of 1996 showed that “Russia has already become ‘a real Tatarstan,’ an oligarchic state in which practically all power is concentrated above; and the population plays only a decorative and supportive role, taking part in elections and voting as they should.”
And it was thus “an irony of fate” for Shaimiyev when he tried to support “the ambitions of Primakov and Luzhkov,” Portnikov continues, only to be “quickly reminded that he now was living in a greater Tatarstan” rather than a democratic Russia.
Chechnya represented another challenge, one that in the end Moscow adapted to in much the same way. The Chechnya of the early 1990s seemed “alien and even wild simply because it was a model of a state organization in a province that was revolting” and therefore “it was necessary that Chechnya again become an inalienable part of Russia.”
To that end, Moscow adapted to Chechnya rather than the other way around, Portnikov says.
For many Russians, he suggests, “it would have been preferable that not Russia should have become like Chechnya but Chechnya like Russia.” But then one has to ask, like “what Russia?” Like the one similar to Tatarstan? “The Russia of Piontkovsky or the Russia of Dugin?”
It might have happened that the Russian government might simply have “copied the Soviet power vertical and the Soviet organization of society and its relationships with the societies.” But what happened was that the Kremlin copied “the Chechen model,” with its “fear, unrestricted power of the state, and the authority of the leader.”
The Russian Empire in its various guises is “like an onion,” Portnikov concludes. “The pealing away of its layers began already a century ago and always has been accompanied by tears. But the main thing is that no one knows” what in fact is at the center given that the center has been “mimicking” the outer layers for so long.