Staunton, Sept. 3 – In the runup to the September 19 Duma and regional parliamentary elections, many are correctly pointing out that in Russia elections have turned into a meaningless exercise given that all opposition has been excluded and the results have become absolutely predictable, Vadim Shtepa says.
But those who do so often forget this did not happen overnight, the editor of the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal says. Instead, it began with Putin’s ban in 2001 of regional parties, one of his first steps toward constructing the power vertical and a choice that highlights his fears about the regions (severreal.org/a/vybory-zapret-regional-nyh-partij/31431680.html reposted at region.expert/clones/).
In the first year of his presidency, Putin secured the passage of a law on political parties which specified that they could have “only an all-federation character. Consequently, all regional parties were banned.” That means that politicians in the regions can promote local interests only through parties that in every case have Moscow “politburos” in charge.
Putin and his regime are “terrified that if the regions become subjects rather than objects of policy, that will “inevitably lead to separatism,” forgetting that most regions aren’t interested in that and that many entirely unitary countries, like France, allow regional parties to compete and win, offering ideas that are sometimes taken up by all-national organizations.
If Russia were a normal country, many of its people would be focused as much on the voting for members in the 39 regional parliaments as on those to the Russian Duma. But the ban on regional parties means that most candidates, even those who would like to represent their regions, are pale copies of an all-Russian agenda written at the center.
This becomes obvious if one imagines what elections might have been like in the northwestern portion of the Russian Federation this month if regional parties were allowed to take part in political life and present their ideas to the voters, Shtepa continues. The results of such a thought experiment are instructive.
In Karelia, he says, the winning parties would be those pressing for more cooperation with Finland, not exit from Russia but an opening of Russia to trade and cultural ties with its immediate neighbor. “Even some local communists would not have anything against this,” and so such parties would carry the day.
In St. Petersburg, there would be a struggle between European-progressives and conservative defenders of tradition. But “as the experience of these movements show, often they in a paradoxical way would find a common language” based on their mutual attachment to the northern capital.
In Leningrad Oblast, the winning party almost certainly would be the Ingermanlanders who would press for the restoration of a name that graced this area hundreds of years before anyone had ever heard of the Bolshevik revolutionary. But the victory of that regional party would lead to more than a change of name.
It would lead to the revival of regional traditions, and something similar would happen in Pskov and Novgorod as well. And “in Kaliningrad Oblast, no one would ban the return of the historic name of the city,” as the regime does now. Instead, it would become again a model of a Russian Euro-Region and help integrate not just Koegnigsberg but Russia in the West.
Given all this and given Putin’s desire to return to an increasingly Muscovite past, it is understandable why he fears regionalism even though he does not understand it as a natural phenomenon and not as some cat’s paw intended to break apart the country of which he is for the time being president.