Thursday, December 15, 2016

Five Facts about Russia’s Regions and Seven Questions for Russia’s Regionalists

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 15 – Russia beyond Moscow’s ring road is an enormous different and varied place, one often treated in terms not of its full diversity but only in response to the coverage of events in the central media and one that has sparked a variety of aspirations for greater attention to regional rights than many in Moscow seem aware of.

            This week has brought two remarkable articles which help shed light both on the unexpected nature of the diversity of the regions of Russia and on the issues confronting those who seek greater rights for the regions and the revival of one or another kind of federalism as a means not only of holding the country together but ensuring a transition to democracy.

            The first is offered by Svetlana Saltanova of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who provides a listing, as the website of that institution often does about a variety of issues, of five “scientific facts” about Russian regions that scholars there and elsewhere have established (

            The five are as follows:

·         “A full life exists not only in the two capitals” but in many regional centers. Indeed, according to the most recent research, in five major regional capitals – Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Chelyabinsk, Kazan and Novosibirsk – life is rated as better and more comfortable than in Moscow or St. Petersburg (

·         Residents of different regions have different fears: People in Altay Kray are most frightened of ecological threats, while fear of poverty dominates those living Krasnodar kray and Khakasia. Siberians also fear “the arbitrariness of officials and law enforcement agencies, crime, loneliness and being abandoned” (

·         Foreign corporations routinely “sort” Russia’s regions, building factories and plans overwhelmingly in only a few federal subjects and ignoring all the others. In short, it is not just the central Russian government that is ignoring most of them (

·         Labor productivity varies by a factor of six among the regions, with 10 to 14 subjects being much more productive than the remaining ones and these differences in turn help to explain differences in per capita incomes, especially in regions whose economies are not based on extractive industries (

·         People in most regions are not committed to the maintenance of the existing ethno-territorial division of the country. Instead, they remain attached to earlier and even ancient ethnic and political borders (

The second, a listing of seven questions that many regionalist activists and movements have not yet focused on, is offered by Yegor Yershov, a Russian blogger who identifies himself as “only a Russian democratic nationalist” rather than as a committed regionalist ( 

As a committed democratic nationalist, he says that he recognizes that Russia is “too large” to be run by a highly centralized state as is the case now, a situation in which things are controlled so tightly in Moscow that the center can name as governors “presidential bodyguards, although thankfully not yet their horses” and can leave the regions only tiny slice tax revenue.

That makes federalism a necessity if Russia is to survive and flourish as a democratic state, Yershov says; but recognizing the need is far from answering all the questions those who also admit the necessity of power-sharing arrangements need to address before they can hope to be taken seriously and help restructure the country.

He offers seven such questions to begin this debate:

·         Should Russian federalists reject all that has been achieved by a unitary state or should they rather acknowledge that by holding the country together, that state has opened the way for federalism in the future?

·         How can one avoid the risk that by relying on regional identities, the advocates of federalism unintentionally will end by “strengthening a Soviet identity” because of how many of those identities have emerged?

·         Even if federalists can agree on the goal, how can they proceed toward it and what kind of institutions will have to emerge both to reach agreement and institutionalize federalism? Otherwise there is the risk that any such move “immediately after Putin will be an agreement between regional obkoms of United Russia.”

·         What kind of border changes among the regions should be promoted and how?

·         Would it not be better to follow the German rather than the American model and have lander rather than states as the basis of a new federal Russia, “not a Moscow oblast but a federal land of Moscovia, not a republic of Tatarstan but a federal land of Bulgaria, and not a Krasnodar kray but a federal land of the Kuban?”

·         If one wants a post-imperial Russia, one needs to discuss which of the past empires one is moving beyond. Just which empire do Russian federalists want to depart from – and how can they avoid becoming implicit supporters of an alternative one rather than true advocates of federalism?

·         Finally, just what issues should be under the control of the regions? And how should that be determined at first and perhaps at some future point changed?

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