Saturday, January 19, 2019

For Russia’s Republics and Regions, Sovereignty Far More Important than External Borders, Shteppa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 19 – When the Soviet Union was headed toward the dustbin of history, many non-Russian activists focused on whether or not their republics had external borders, the sine qua non at that time for being a union republic and thus having the right to leave the USSR under the Soviet constitution.

            There is no similar understanding in the Russian Federation, but because of the Soviet precedent, many non-Russians still think in those terms; and the ones who do not have an external border are either pessimistic about their chances or are considering whether there is any possibility of acquiring one.

            But having an external border under current conditions is no guarantee of local control or sovereignty. The non-Russian republic with the longest external border, Karelia, is one of the most tightly controlled; and other republics like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan that lack any such border have more power.

            Consequently, for republics and regions, Vadim Shtepa, the editor of the Region.Expert portal argues, seeking and having control over their own fate (sovereignty) is more important than having an external border which may or may not offer the benefits that those having or pursing it think (

            His comments are prompted by the appearance late last year of an article by Ukrainian political commentator Pavlo Podobed who called on Kyiv to support Bashkortostan’s efforts to acquire several districts in Orenburg Oblast to gain an external border and the possibility of independence for itself and more generally for the Ideal-Ural region in the Middle Volga ( in Ukrainian; in Russian).

            Podobed described the Orenburg corridor as the biggest unrecognized threat to Moscow’s control of the country. (For discussion of that corridor and its implications, see

            Since Podobed’s article appeared, Shtepa notes, there has been little discussion of his idea in either the Ukrainian or the Russian media. Ukrainians are focused on other things; and Moscow certainly does not want to attract more attention to this idea by making it the focus of media coverage.

            But regionalists, of whom Shtepa is one of the most prominent, have an obligation to talk about this idea lest it have an impact other than the ones that its supporters argue it would have. He suggests there are four reasons for concern on that score:

            First, since 1991, Moscow has promoted regional amalgamation but not the shift of part of a federal subject to another, although the center’s backing for the transfer of historically Ingush lands to Chechnya suggests that may be changing. However, the protests that has evoked should serve as a warning to regionalists.

            Free Idel-Ural and other groups supportive of gaining Bashkir control over the Orenburg Corridor would not want any border change deal to be the work of elites behind closed doors but rather the result of referenda in both federal subjects. To win such a referendum, Ufa would have to convince residents in the Orenburg districts that they would live better in Bashkortostan.

            But so far, the Free Idel-Ural movement has stressed ethno-cultural issues rather that civic self-administration, an approach that is unlikely to win many supporters among ethnic Russians; and it has not taken the preliminary steps of reaching accord via referendum among the republics that would form a genuinely popular Idel Ural Republic.

            Second, the Soviet-era idea that union republics had to have external land borders was never enshrined in law and not always practiced: Estonia and Latvia, after being occupied by Moscow, were made union republics with the nominal right to withdraw even though they did not have such external land borders. They did have access abroad via sea, however.

            More important, however, Shtepa argues, is that “present-day Russian law, unlike its Soveit predecessor, does not presuppose any ‘right to exit’ for any of ‘the subjects of the federation.’ Thus, the issue of external borders in the Russian federation is even less important than it was in the USSR.”

            Third, the pursuit of extending Bashkortostan’s border to Kazakhstan could play an evil trick on those behind it because Russia and Kazakhstan are closely integrated economically and might be more ready to view Bashkortostan or even Idel Ural as a bridge between them rather than a self-standing entity.

                And fourth and most important, the Russian regionalist argues, “no regional transformation in the Russian Federation is possible if the subjects of the federation do not recall” and focus on “the forgotten word ‘sovereignty.’’  Only if the federal subjects acquire that, he says, can there be any hope of developing their territories or new inter-regional communities.

            Moscow is quite happy to play up ethnic issues in order to distract people from the pursuit of sovereignty because as Shtepa puts it, “the empire wants to see in the republics only dances in national costumes” and to ensure that “their citizens do not demand genuine democratic self-administration.”

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