Saturday, February 25, 2017

Will Moscow Disband Non-Russian Republics Only to Create Larger Regionalist Challenges to Itself?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 25 – Rumors have been swirling this week that the Kremlin is about to disband the non-Russian republics and reorganize the country into larger regions centered on major cities.  Whether these rumors are true is an open question, but if Moscow does take that step, it almost certainly will be triggering far more serious regional challenges to itself.

            Last Sunday, Fauziya Bayramova, a leading Tatar activist, told a Nizhnekamsk meeting that she had been told by an unnamed source in the entourage of Tatarstan’s president that “a decision to liquidate [Tatarstan] had already been taken in Moscow” (in Tatar at; in Russian at

            The idea, she said, is that Moscow wants “to unite around major cities and around Kazan. The position of the president of the republic will not remain nor will any other national republics. [And] there won’t be a law on state languages of Tatarstan. According to Bayramova, Tatarstan will be united with Mari El, Chuvashia and Ulyanovsk oblast but not with Bashkortostan lest Muslims form a majority in the new entity.

            Bayramova’s remarks have triggered discussions in Tatarstan and the Middle Volga.  Most experts dismiss her remarks as baseless, arguing that despite Moscow’s oft-expressed desire to amalgamate regions and republics, her description of what the center plans to do is highly improbable (

                Most observers suggested that such a move would be harmful for Tatarstan and would be resisted by any Russian oblast or other non-Russian republic Moscow might try to include within any such entity.  And they suggested that such rumors are an entirely natural phenomenon given fears about whether Moscow’s power-sharing treaty with Kazan will be extended this summer.

            But one commentator with whom Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service spoke, Konstantin Strokin, a political scientist in Mari El, raised the question as to whether such a larger entity to be called a guberniya or something else might represent a serious challenge to Moscow itself.

            He said that Finno-Ugric nations would oppose any such unity given the sad experience of their co-ethnics in the former Komi-Permyak autonomous district which Putin forced into Perm kray a decade ago and that they would see any such development not as a new combination but as “the swallowing” of their republics by others, Tatar or Russian.

            But perhaps Strokin’s most important observation is the following. He suggested that “in principle, it isn’t very probable that Moscow, having overcome financial asymmetry will go along the path of creating a super-nation and multi-confessionall mega-subject in which the share of ethnic Russians would fall below 50 percent.”

            To do so, he suggested, would be “an unjustified risk,” given the kind of political configuration in Russia would change if it were not a federation of more than 80 subjects but rather one of a dozen or fewer.  Strokin did not say what many have pointed out: federations with a small number of units are more at risk of collapse than ones with larger numbers.

            Nor did he or any of the other experts Ideal.Real interviewed mention what almost certainly must be on the minds of most: A century ago, the Maris, Chuvash, Udmurts, Mordvins, Komis, Komi-Permyaks, Kalmyks and Tatars came together a declared an independent Idel-Ural Republic.

            That state did not exist for long: it was suppressed by the Red Army.  But memories of it continue to exist and may serve as a warning to Moscow. Were the center to create a super-region in the Volga-Urals region – and that is what “Idel-Ural” means in Turkic – Moscow would confront a force far stronger than Tatarstan or any other republic.

            Indeed, Moscow’s first act of ethnic engineering, the division of Tatars and Bashkirs into two republics in 1920, was intended to prevent the formation of that kind of Turkic Muslim challenge.  (On that action, its fallout and its current resonance in the Middle Volga, see

            Given the ethnic complexity of the Middle Volga region, Strokin argued that if Moscow is going to adopt a cities-based reorganization of the country, it will more likely  begin it in Siberia and the Far East, rather than taking all the risks that creating a super-region around Kazan would entail.

             But in pointing to Siberia and the Russian Far East as candidates for such formations, the Mari El political scientist implicitly makes reference to the other major portion of the Russian Federation which has a tradition of regionalism that Moscow has fought in the past by carving it up into smaller krays, oblasts and national units.

            Siberian regionalism – or “oblastnichestvo” as it is called in Russian – has a long history, one that has generally been predicated on the idea of autonomy rather than independence. But despite that Moscow – tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet – has very much opposed it. (For background, see

            Many assume that because most of the population in Siberia and the Russian Far East is ethnically Russian – or at least so classified by Russian census takers – the region poses no threat to the territorial integrity of the country and think that the aspirations of Siberians are limited to autonomy in any case.

            But in a new comment for the AfterEmpire portal, regionalist Yaroslav Zolotaryov points out that Poland, Ukraine and Belarus provide “a precedent for Slavic states getting independence from the Russian empire.” They did so, however, by fighting for it rather than by seeking ever more autonomy (

                “However,” Zolotaryov continues, “one must not talk as if history is over. In Siberia, which ‘the center’ continues to exploit, more radical movements may arise … Today Moscow brands all Ukrainian patriots as ‘Banderites.’ Perhaps, it will call the future fighters for Siberian independence ‘Potaninites’” in honor of the founder of the oblastnichestvo 150 years ago.

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