Friday, September 15, 2017

Putin Plans Faustian Bargain for Non-Russian Elites -- More Power for Some but Less Ethnic Support for All

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 15 – Vladimir Putin appears to be planning a radical shift in his approach to the reduction in the number of federal subjects, restructuring the country into non-ethnic krays in a way that will offer some non-Russian elites greater power in exchange for their willingness to give up nationality as the basis of their positions.

            A decade ago, Putin launched his campaign to cut the number of federation subjects by amalgamating smaller and in most cases “matrhoska” non-Russian republics with larger and predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts, transforming some of them into krays. But many have resisted that approach, and the Kremlin leader has not made much progress recently.

            Now, apparently convinced by those who argue that Russia should be structured not on its current basis, incliuding both non-Russian and predominantly Russian areas, into one centered on the major cities, an approach that reflects both the demographic hollowing out of the countryside and a calculation that this approach will work.

            The first test of this new approach is likely to be in Kazan, where widespread rumors have it that Moscow will offer the political elite greater powers over a larger territory and far bigger economy but at the price of downplaying the nationality and language of the Tatars (

            A major assessment of the pluses and minuses of such a change in the Middle Volga has now appeared, one that considers both what it would mean if Kazan did become the center of a new larger Russian krya and also what might happen if that role goes to someone else (

            If Kazan does get the nod and goes along, “the political pluses are obvious.”  The head of the republic who with 100 percent certainty would become the leader of the new region, “would significantly strengthen his positions in the Russian power structures, receiving in essence the status of a presidential plenipotentiary” – as well as control over a territory as large as France.

            But there are some very real negatives, the analysis continues. First, Tatarstan’s leader would become “de facto a minister without portfolio” because the republic would “lose its national identity” and the issue of the equality of Russian and Tatar languages would be resolved against the latter.

            Second, there would be the problems of reaching the necessary compromises among the various elites involved, at least some of whom would be opposed to deferring to Kazan even in its new role.  And third, this change would dramatically affect the relations between the Kazan Kremlin and the Tatar nation, many of whom would view this change as an act of betrayal.

            That sets the stage for one kind of conflict. But if Kazan isn’t offered the leading role in such a new kray, there will be other forms of conflicts – and at least some of them will reflect an alliance of the Kazan elite and the Tatar nation, a combination that Moscow can ignore only at its peril.

            All the other non-Russian republics will be watching to see what happens in this case because even though their situations are in most cases radically different than the Tatars, Moscow's penchant for a one-size-fits-all approach means that if Putin can push this through in the Middle Volga, he is likely to try to do the same elsewhere as well. 

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