Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Disappearance of Regional Symbols in Russian Protests Doesn’t Mean Regionalism is Dead, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 31 – Protests are taking place in far more cities across Russia now than six years ago – in many cases, they are occurring where there had never been a protest in the past; but those taking part in these meetings are far less likely to display regional flags and symbols, Vadim Shtepa says.

            How is this “contradiction” to be explained?  The editor of the regionalist After Empire portal says that in order to understand what is going on, it is importable to remember “the modern history of regionalism in Russia,” one in which regional parties … arose almost at the same time as those in Europe” (

            In the European Union, regional parties arose as a counterweight to the centralism of Brussels and have enjoyed remarkable electoral success. But regional parties in Russia, which arose in the 1990s, were prohibited in 2001.  Moscow thus achieved its goal of “driving the regionalists out of politics.”

            As a result, Shtepa says, “many local bureaucrats who had been members of regional parties in the 1990s, humbly joined United Russia. However, he points out, “one shouldn’t reduce regionalism only to the interests of officials,” as there have always been many civic activists within it.

            Since the early years of this century, two things have happened that affect the manifestation of regionalism in Russia. On the one hand, the destruction of federalism by Vladimir Putin meant that the civic activists were radicalized. And on the other, the events in Ukraine changed everything.

            Slogans like “’separate from the empire’ became ever more popular in the most varied regions,” Shtepa says, “and from then one, Russian imperialists became accustomed to conflating regionalism and separatism.”  Had Russia remained a federation, neither of those things would have happened.

            “The political apogee of informal regionalist movement can be viewed as the winter of 2011-2012 when protest against the falsifications in Duma elections combined with protest against imperial centralism as such.” That even forced Dmitry Medvedev to return gubernatorial elections, but with the return of Putin, that didn’t happen.

            Then came Ukraine. Moscow created the “pseudo-regionalist formations” of DNR and LNR, which had a profoundly negative impact on Russian regionalists – “although in reality this was an imperial inversion of regionalism,” annexing territories of another country while displaying “above all its fear of ‘separatism’ in its own.”

            “By calling for the federalism of Ukraine, [Putin] finally destroyed federalism in Russia itself.”  That is why regionalist symbols like flags and coats of arms disappeared from subsequent demonstrations. Otherwise those who carried them might be convicted of the crime of promoting the violation of the territorial integrity of the country.

            “Nevertheless,” Shtepa continues, “in ‘the voters’ strike’ and in other actions of Aleksey Navalny, Russian regionalist movements literally have acquired a second breath.” One might call them “’spontaneous regionalists.’”  That is, they wanted free elections in their own areas as well as in the Russian Federation as a whole.

                Indeed, he argues, “Navalny is a much greater federalist than many other politicians who consider themselves that.” He has visited more Russian cities than all other “’federal opposition figures’ taken together have.” And in that he has set himself apart from many Moscow opposition figures who remain centralist and only want “the empire to be ‘more liberal.’”

            One measure of Navalny’s commitment to regionalism and federalism, Shtepa says, is the fact that his command is structured as “an inter-regional network of volunteers,” a complete contrast with all other party figures.  Consequently, “the themes of regionalism and federalism in the coming years will become ever more important.”

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