Staunton, January 24 – When the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolving along the borders of the union republics, two places which had been union republics in the past – Karelia and Abkhazia – were put in a difficult position: if they had remained union republics, they would have been headed toward independence. If they did not reclaim that position, they would not.
In the event, neither achieved that status in 1991, but Abkhazia as a result of its own military actions immediately thereafter against Georgia and then Russia’s military action against Tbilisi led to Abkhazia joining the ranks of the unrecognized states. That history is well known, but Karelia and its failure at the start of the post-Soviet era are now.
In an important article on the new Region.Expert portal, Karelian activist Valery Potashov recounts the history of Karelian aspirations at the end of Soviet times and the start of post-Soviet ones, aspirations that say a great deal about both ethnic assertiveness and regional aspirations even now (region.expert/karexit/).
Some remember that Karelia was one of the first to declare its sovereignty within the RSFSR or USSR on August 9, 1990, just three days after Boris Yeltsin told the non-Russian republics to take as much sovereignty “as you can swallow.” But fewer remember that in November 1991, Karelia renamed itself the Karelian Republic.
“For a long time,” Postashov says, he “thought that the adoption of this Declaration was the bravest step of the Karelian deputies. But in the online ‘Library of Andrey Zakharov,’ [he] found materials from the January 1992 session of the Supreme Soviet of Karelia and read literally the following:
“Deputy S. Popov proposed including in the agenda the issue of the possibility of the exit of the Republic of Karelia from the Russian Federation. A number of parliamentarians countered with a proposal to consider the issue about the steps by the Republic of Karelia leading to the adoption of a Federative Agreement.
“Both proposals were put to a vote. Forty-three deputies voted for the first; 76 voted for the second.”
Sergey Popov, a sovkhoz direction, is no longer among the living, Postashov says, but the Petrozavodsk newspaper Nabat Severo-Zapada provides a description of what happened. “Popov,” it says, “proposed that the session study the possibility of the exit of Karelia from the Russian Federation” by examining whether Karelia could make it on its own economically.
Popov’s proposal sparked a media discussion about Karelian independence, and even those who did not vote for his program, including the chairman of the Karelian Supreme Soviet said that he understood the positions of those who did. Probably both he and others viewed this proposal as a means of putting pressure on Moscow.
“As we see,” Potashov says, “at the start of the 1990s, the idea of the state independence of Karelia was very much present not only in the public discussions of the republic but even was raised in the walls of its parliament. Neither the politicians nor the leaders of Karelia were afraid of this discussion: they considered it as completely natural.”
Now the situation has completely changed. Anyone who even talks about Karelian independence is likely to be charged and fined if not worse. “In other words, ‘the field of freedom’ in the Russian Federation has turned out to be smaller than in the Soviet Union where the right of republics to leave the USSR was guaranteed in the Constitution of the country.”
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