Staunton, August 6 – More than any other country, Russia has shifted its capital to signal radical changes in direction. Peter the Great built a new capital in St. Petersburg to open “a window on Europe.” Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow to defend his new regime against outside attacks. And periodically, under Vladimir Putin, some Russians have suggested moving it again.
Given Russia’s turning away from the West and toward China, ever more of such people have focused on the possibility of moving the Russian capital to somewhere further from the Western borders and toward the east, either developing an existing city in Siberia or building an entirely new one.
That is precisely the kind of giant project that has so often attracted the Russian elite, one that they can pursue in place of addressing smaller but more immediate challenges facing the Russian people. Consequently, it is no surprise that they have jumped on Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s proposal to develop Siberian cities as a step in that direction.
Shoygu himself has made clear that he isn’t talking about moving the capital from Moscow to somewhere east of the Urals. But he has stressed that he favors building up urban centers in that region to better defend the country and also sending at least some federal workers in that direction (tvrain.ru/teleshow/here_and_now/perenos_stolitsy_v_sibir-535473/).
In many respects, the discussion his words has sparked can be dismissed as an August phenomenon, something that happens every year when many people are on vacation and almost any news story attracts more attention than it would at any other time of year with various journalists and commentators extrapolating it far beyond what is intended.
Moving the Russian capital from Moscow, given the hyper-centralized political and transportation system in Russia, would be enormously destabilizing; and thus something Putin in the final years of his presidency may be tempted to do but likely will be restrained from pursuing at any length.
What is more important about all this hoopla is something else, however. By talking about the need for urban growth in Siberia and the transfer of at least some federal functionaries to cities there, Shoygu has legitimated discussions about decentralization, something Putin and his regime have in almost all cases opposed.
The defense minister has thus made it possible for regionalists to attract far more attention to their calls for decentralization and federalization than they have been able to in recent years when any such appeal risks leading the regime to bring criminal charges against them for threatening the territorial integrity of the country.
By making this argument, Shoygu, thought by many to be the ultimate Putin loyalist, has thus highlighted the problems the Russian government faces by being so centralized and likely opened the way for a broader discussion of the need for change than has been possible in recent years.
Whether and how the Kremlin will shut such talk down as it has done earlier remains one of the most intriguing questions of political life in Russia today.