Staunton, August 31 – The Putin regime likes to suggest that nationalism and constitutional right of union republics to leave the USSR were to blame for that country’s demise. No doubt they played a role, but former Soviet officials are ever more often coming forward to warn of another serious cause – the hyper-centralization of the Soviet regime.
That is not something the current powers that be are likely to want to hear because under Vladimir Putin, they have been restoring centralization with a vengeance and so in that regard, despite anything else they may be doing, they are repeating the mistakes their Soviet predecessors made with potentially similar consequences for the Russian Federation.
Valery Paulman, who worked for many years as head of the Estonian SSR Gosplan before being shifted to Moscow to become the last Soviet labor minister, said that when he worked on the republic plan, he had to check with Moscow on the pettiest of matters (svpressa.ru/politic/article/308452/).
“For example,” he relates, when any building project was being considered, Moscow’s approval had to be sought for items as small as individual toilets. Not surprisingly, officials in Tallinn were outraged by that level of invasive supervision and that added to their desire to get out from under rule by the center.
Dmitry Rodionov of Svobodnaya Pressa spoke with two Russian experts, Vladimir Lepekhin of the Institute for the Eurasian Economic Community and Fyodor Biryukhov of the Moscow Institute of Freedom about Paulman’s observation and about its relevance for the Russian Federation now.
Lepekhin says that Paulman is only one of former Soviet officials making this argument, one he suggests is being used and perhaps even orchestrated by one faction or another in the current Russian government. What they are saying is not so much untrue as overstated, the institute director says.
He says his own experience in Estonia in 1988 when he visited Tallinn as a Komsomol official showed that “Estonian elites were already looking to the West and not because they were oppressed by the leadership of the USSR but simply because Europe promised the republic a higher and more comfortable way of life.”
“The growth of consumer attitudes and the growth of political and other ambitions connected with them along with the inadequate reaction to this rooted in the dogmatic rhetoric of the party nomenklatura was the main cause of regional separatism in the last years of the USSR,” Lepekhin says.
The “main” problem was not the central nature of decision making in the USSR but rather the lack of an adequate strategy for economic development; and that lack, he continues, led to serious deficits in consumer goods and a sense among people that the situation would continue to get worse.
Asked by Rodionov as to whether “we are now not making the very same mistakes,” Lepekhin concedes that “the new ruling class doesn’t intend to draw lessons from history. And this lesson is not that we must turn away from a centralized administration and the power vertical.”
Russia needs “a sensible, effective and tough” state, “but it must be combined with a feedback loop and interrelationships with the economically active part of the population,” with “the de-monopolization and de-oligarchization of the economy,” a more sensible tax and fiscal system and so on. There is a lot to do.
Today, Lepekhin says, “the population in the regions is dissatisfied not by the centralization of the adoption of decisions but by the thievish character of the powers both at the center and in the localities, the unrestrained appetites of the new nomenklatura” which finds it easier to steal if the state is “completely disorganized.”
“The danger of separatism in the Russian Federation is hardly in the economically weak regions,” but in economically stronger ones, like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, it is very real. But what Russia is threatened by is “not economic separatism but ethnic separatism” given the lack of a clearly articulated strategy by the Kremlin.
According to Lepekhin, the intellectual level of the Soviet nomenklatura in the 1980s was not high; and the current one isn’t any better. “It is more effective in achieving personal and corrupt interests,” but like its predecessor, it is incapable of dealing with questions involving the interests of the country and the state.
Biryukov offers a somewhat different reaction. He says that “hypertrophic centralism in the economy is fraught with separatism but not with nationalism.” What happened in at the end of Soviet times is that Moscow viewed the nationalism of small peoples like the Estonians as non-threatening even as it worked hard to contain any manifestation of Russian nationalism.
“We must not forget what was done in many republics at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, how Russians were killed, their homes destroyed, themselves threatened and forced to leave.” The local officials were “denationalized and corrupt,” and when the USSR fell apart, the nationalists took power in the non-Russian republics.
But in the Russian Federation, in contrast, “Western multiculturalism” was accepted as the only path forward. According to Biryukov, “the only ideology which could have saved the USSR was Russian imperial nationalism, an idea integrating, constructive and patriotic. But Russian nationalists were declared ‘fascists.’”
That attitude “continues in Russia to this day.” Still worse, “local nationalism was given the green light which almost led to the collapse of the Russian Federation itself in the middle of the 1990s,” the institute director says. And adding to that threat, he says, is the willingness of Russian officials now for their own profit to import more and more migrant workers.
That too works against the survival of the Russian Federation.
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