Staunton, May 20 – Moscow fears that the increasing focus of Russians on their regions will “grow into separatism,” Mikhail Vinogradov, the head of Petersburg Politics, says, a fear that protests in Yekaterinburg and other cities over planned church construction and in the Russian North about the possible construction of dumps for trash from the Russian capital.
Having experienced the disintegration of the USSR along ethnic lines, the center has always been concerned about the possibility that non-Russian republics could pose such a challenge and thus has worked hard to limit their authority. But now it faces challenges to its authority in predominantly Russian regions, places on which it thought it could always count.
The combination of this old fear and these new challenges will likely determine Moscow’s response, but at present, analysts like Vinogradov suggest, the central authorities do not have a clear road map of what to do. They do not want to alienate ethnic Russians, but they also don’t want the country to fall apart.
Vinogradov says that “regional patriotism exists when the territory on which an individual lives has value.” It can take many forms, including protests like those in Yekaterinburg and the Russian North. Who the winners and losers of these actions remains uncertain (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2019/05/19/801760-rossii-tretya-volna).
But these developments are stimulating the center’s fears of separatism in places where it has not generally thought it was possible since the suppression of regional barons at the end of the 1990s and in the first years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. So far, however, Vinogradov points out, Moscow hasn’t yet come up with a systematic answer to this challenge.
Such regionalism is an indication of another and potentially more dangerous trend: the weakening of the center as far as its control over the country is concerned. Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer who now works as a commentator, says that regionalism always emerges whenever the central authorities weaken.
“Having become disappointed in ‘big discussions,’” he says in the same Vedomosti article which quotes Vinogradov, “the voter begins in confusion to look around in search of new guiding ideas. And the first that he sees is ‘the small motherland’” of his region. “That was the case both after the 1917 revolution and at the end of the 1980s.”
Like most analysts, Gallyamov continues to argue that the non-Russian republics are the most likely candidates for the emergence of such movements because they can invest land with ethnic meaning. But it is significant that he, Vinogradov and other commentators in Moscow now are focusing on predominantly Russian regions.
He suggests that one way in which the present situation could develop would be for regional elites to try to harness the anger of their populations against Moscow, pointing to that anger as a reason for the center to make concessions to them. That is what happened in the 1990s and could occur again.
Alternatively, although Gallyamov doesn’t mention this, Moscow could try to play up Russian nationalism in the hopes of trumping local identities, but its ability to do so is far less than many imagine. On the one hand, its handmaiden in such an effort, the Russian Orthodox Church, is discredited; and actions like Crimea and the Sochi Games aren’t lasting.
And on the other, making use of immigrants as targets could reduce their number and thus harm the economy and making non-Russian republics a focus of Russian anger could lead to a situation in which the center would be triggering the kind of separatism in them that Moscow now fears may be emerging in predominantly ethnic Russian regions.
In short, Moscow is confronted by yet another situation in which it has no good choices, precisely the circumstance in which it is likely to use ever more repression and thus produce precisely what it fears.