Staunton, April 30 – Three recent events – Aleksey Navalny’s March 26 anti-corruption protests in 100 Russian cities, the long-haul truckers’ strike in at least 80 of the federal subjects, and yesterday’s Open Russia demonstrations against Putin in more than 30 cities -- suggest that Russia is on the way to becoming a country and not just an appendage of Moscow.
Given the hyper-centric nature of Russian political life, something that has gotten worse under Vladimir Putin, and the hyper-centric coverage of developments in Russia by both the Russian and Western media, this represents a remarkable development, one that presents special challenges to the Kremlin and its opponents and to Russia watchers as well.
For the Kremlin, whose occupants are used to viewing the country beyond the ring road or even beyond the walls of their castle as an object of politics they can exploit rather than a subject whose interests and needs must be taken into account, that is unsettling both immediately and in the longer term.
Moscow outlets almost invariably either ignore the regions and republics beyond the capital altogether – federal TV channels didn’t even show up at a meeting this past week on how to cover events in the republics (nazaccent.ru/content/23943-zhurnalisty-i-predstaviteli-nko-obsudili-problemy.html) – or they treat them only in terms of Moscow’s interests.
And up until now, opposition groups, just as was largely the case at the end of Soviet times have focused almost as heavily on the capital as those in power, reinforcing the view of many Russians and outsiders that everything will continue to be decided in Moscow even when the Putin regime passes from the scene.
Now, however, the opposition has begun to focus on the regions, implicating promoting decentralization and federalization even if those words as yet seldom figure in its programmatic statements; and the Kremlin has to reckon with a political situation in which everything may be quiet in Moscow even though much of the rest of the country is bubbling with anger.
The Kremlin will undoubtedly seek to suppress the regions once again, confident that its claims that any activism outside of Moscow threatens the territorial integrity of the country and also confident that repression visited against its opponents in the regions will be largely ignored by both Russians and Westerners until there is violence.
In fact, it is already doing both, stepping up the propaganda theme that Russia is at risk of disintegration and that outside powers are playing on the regions, something that the Kremlin leadership believes shows that its opponents are not only unpatriotic but traitors to the Russian state, and forcing the regional governments to crack down.
This pattern places special burdens on those in Western governments and Western media to keep track of what is going on beyond the Moscow ring road. Because there are few outside diplomats and journalists based in the regions and because Moscow-based ones visit only infrequently, that isn’t an easy job.
But it is far less difficult than many imagine in the age of the Internet; and as the events at the end of Soviet times show, it is far more important because once again the fate of a country now centered in Moscow may once again be shaped not by what happens within its city limits but on the periphery, even if few could then or even fewer now could imagine that outcome.