Friday, January 18, 2019

Three Cases Where Some in Russia Copy Others in Ways Moscow Doesn’t Want

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – The USSR did not fall apart because of any one action by the Soviet leaders or because of any one action by one or another individual or group in the population. Instead, it fell apart when officials or activists in one place began to copy what others elsewhere had done.

            This demonstration effect proved to be so powerful that the central authorities were ultimately unable to control it.  That is what makes three developments in the last few days in the Russian Federation so intriguing because all of them suggest that this pattern of unwanted copying is one again becoming a hallmark of Russian life.

            This is not to say that this trend necessarily points to the disintegration of Russia; but it is to argue that Moscow for all its power is losing control of the agenda in many parts of the country, even if it appears to have the ability to intervene and prevent this kind of copycat “crime” from spreading everywhere.

            The first and potentially most explosive case of this is the result of a decision by a Chechen court to cancel massive debts of people in that North Caucasus republic for communal services, an action that Grozny apparently took to prevent Chechens from going into the streets and protesting.

            This has sparked outrage among many Russians because it is yet another case where Chechnya appears to view itself as a special case not subject to the rules that govern everyone else ( and But it has had another consequence, one likely to be even more unwelcome in the Kremlin.

            Other regions are now arguing that they should be allowed to do what the Chechens have done ( and

            That confronts the Kremlin with a Hobson’s choice: If it intervenes to reverse the Chechen decision, it risks not only offending Ramzan Kadyrov but also sparking demonstrations that could turn violent in his republic, something that Putin can ill afford at the present time given his assertion that he has “solved” the North Caucasus problem.

            But if Moscow doesn’t intervene against the Chechens in this case, it will face the prospect that ever more regions will demand the right to do the same thing. If it allows that, it will face a financial disaster; if it doesn’t, Moscow will alienate many Russians who will see that in Putin’s Russia, they and not the Chechens are the real second class citizens.

            The second case involves the success people in Tambov have had in forcing the authorities to close a trash dump and even firing some of the officials responsible for the mishandling of that increasingly neuralgic issue. The Tambov residents appear to have been inspired by protests in the Russian North and elsewhere who face similar problems and demand similar remedies (

            Again, this leaves Moscow with no good options. Whatever it does, it is going to offend some people in the Russian Federation and make it more difficult for the center to control the situaiton.

            And the third case involves a non-Russian republic copying what the government of the Russian Federation has said is its right but no one else’s.  Moscow has been promoting the idea of a common non-ethnic Russian identity, but it is horrified by the prospect that any non-Russian republic might do the same.

            That has no happened: Vasil Shaykhraziyev, the deputy prime minister of Tatarstan, has said that the world views all the residents of Tatarstan as Tatars, not in the ethnic sense but in the political one, a simple extrapolation of what Moscow wants to do for all the residents of the Russian Federation.

            Russian commentators are outraged: Moscow can talk about a civic identity, but no non-Russian republic can ( and  The central authorities are likely to try to nip this in the bud, but if they do, they will pay a price: Ever fewer non-Russians will be willing to identify as non-ethnic Russians.

            That is because by such action, the Russian powers that be will be demonstrating what many have long suspected and even argued: Moscow may claim that it is talking about a non-ethnic identity, but in fact, they are investing it with so much Russian content that it will be ethnic in all but name.

            Consequently, what may seem to many to be the least important of these three cases of copying could turn out to be the most important and threatening to the center just as the efforts to promote non-ethnic identities in the union republics of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s copied but undermined the notion of a unified “Soviet people.”

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