Thursday, November 21, 2019

Russian Federalists ‘Dissidents among Dissidents’ at Free Russia Forum, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 18 – The overwhelming majority of participants at the Free Russia Forum “unfortunately retain the very same mental centralism that the Kremlin powers that be have” and were “not prepared to recognize the equality” of Russian regions and republics, Vadim Shtepa writes in Tallinn’s Postimees. 

            Not only did that mean that those in Vilnius who favor federalism were “dissidents among dissidents,” the editor of the Region.Expert portal says; but it means that the former may end by provoking what they most oppose – the disintegration of their country as in 1991 (; in Russian at

            The Vilnius Forum did have a roundtable on “Does Russia Need a New Federative Treaty?” (Shtepa chaired it.) That session, which was consigned to in a smaller room while most forum participants were discussing Russian émigré culture in the plenary chamber, nonetheless attracted not only representatives of non-Russian republics but also from many Russian regions.

            Those taking part before a standing room only audience, Shtepa continues, pointed out that the 1991 Russian federal treaty wasn’t federal in the normal sense of the word: the regions and republics did not meet and decide what to delegate to the center. Instead, the center decided what limited powers it would delegate to the regions and republics.

            That has to change if the country is to flourish or even stay together; and among the proposals for change was one calling for giving all the subjects of the Russian Federation the same rights rather than having republics with one set of powers and oblasts and krays having a second and more limited mix.

            But in raising these issues, the federalist activist says, the participants in this round table turned out to be “paradoxically ‘dissidents among dissidents,’” espousing views that many at the Forum were not even prepared to discuss, let alone accept. It is possible, of course, that the views of the federalists and nationalists appeared too radical.

            After all, one participant, the representative of the Erzya people Bolyaen Syres posed “the fundamental question: are the participants of the Forum ready for the final demolishing of the empire?”  The evidence suggests most are not. Even those who mentioned “anti-imperial” themes were not prepared to follow the logic of them to the end.

            Even Andrey Illarionov who spoke about how Russia must be transformed to become a free and democratic state did not find a place to talk about federalism, Shtepa points out, “even though the real demolition of the empire is possible only with the help of its  transformation into a federation based on equality and agreement.”

            The current powers that be in Moscow fear such a course of development “most of all because it is capable of liquidating the aggressive centralism of the Kremlin.” That is why the Russian authorities have condemned to prison Ayrat Dilmukhametov just for calling for “’a new federation’” (

            The extent to which the thinking of many at the Vilnius Forum echoed that of the Kremlin was well reflected in the remarks of Moscow historian Igor Chubais who “praised the era of the Russian Empire” as against the USSR. To be sure, the Russian Empire was less repressive than the Soviet, but how can one “idealize any empire now in the 21st century?”

            On the second day of the Forum, “in the main hall,” there was a session devoted to “The Roll Call of the Regions: Problems, Successes, and Prospects.”  But it was devoted not to what the regions want but to how well they are carrying out the ideas of the Moscow opposition, something very different indeed.

            And the panel as anything but impressive: “Speakers provoked laughter by confusing Lithuania and Latvia and the Erzya language with Ryazan’s.” In what may be a hopeful sign, Shtepa says, this panel attracted only about half as many people as did the “exiled” round table the day before.

              According to Shtepa, “the organizers of the Free Russia Forum must draw adequate conclusions about what issues interest the majority of participants and not reduce discussions about federalism to a secondary position. On the contrary, they need to hold round tables regularly and in the main hall, with representatives of civic movements for self-administration from various regions.”

            If that doesn’t happen, the organizers will find themselves in the position of the supporters of perestroika at the end of the 1980s. “Then, these primarily Muscovite activists thought up various projects for ‘reform in the USSR’ but skeptically and slightingly viewed the national liberation movements n the various union republics, not considering them ‘too serious.’”

            Such people were “certain that “all politics is made in Moscow.’”  Unfortunately, that seems to be the attitude of most people at the Free Russia Forum. They can’t imagine that anything has changed in that regard. “They still don’t know the word ‘post-Russian,’ just as in 1991, none of them knew the word ‘post-Soviet.’”   

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