Staunton, Sept. 9 – Vladimir Putin is obsessed with the notion that Ukrainians are not a separate nation and that the various people within the borders of the Russian Federation are a unified whole. But in both cases, he is making the situation worse for himself, unifying Ukrainians against Russia and causing non-Russians and Russians outside Moscow to oppose it.
The former is certainly the more advanced and the more dramatic, journalist Vyacheslav Yepuryanu says; but the latter may prove even more serious because in conjunction with the war in Ukraine, it “threatens Russia’s territorial integrity” (theins.ru/politika/254329 reposted at idel-ural.org/archives/antivoennye-etnicheskie-dvizheniya-eshhe-ne-tak-radikalno-no-uzhe-protiv-imperii/).
At the present time, he writes, “none of Russia’s federal subjects have so far displayed a combination of all three risk factors” that can promote separatism, “local volunteer battalions” which encourage local identities, a powerful anti-war movement with an ethnic or territorial identity, and serious challenges to social and economic stability.”
But “in at least ten regions, two of these factors” already combine; and their number shows every indication of growing. As of now, “at least 44” federal subjects have formed volunteer units to fight in Ukraine, and Moscow is pushing the others to do the same. Of these, 12 are non-Russian republics.
Anti-war activism is increasing both in non-Russian and Russian regions as people become aware of the human costs of Putin’s war in Ukraine. In almost all of them, ever more soldiers are coming back in coffins, sparking questions about why people in this or that region or republic should be taking part in this war.
And the economy is deteriorating, although the impact of this decline is softened in many of the hardest hit areas because they are provided with more subsidies than other regions, a pattern that has kept things relatively quiet until now but may not succeed in the future if the war continues and the center can no longer afford to send money out.
Perhaps the most striking development to date, perhaps a bellwether for what is likely to happen in the future, has been the emergence of anti-war movements in the republics and the ways in which the leaders of these movements see their anti-war activism being a prelude to and a mobilizing tool for promoting genuine federalism or even independence.
Dordzhi Mandzhiyev, deputy head of the Kalmyk Republic’s Yabloko Party and organizer of the Kalmyks Against War movement, says that “at least 12 soldiers from Kalmykia have been killed in the war. For a republic with a population of 300,000, that is a lot. What did they die for? The ambitions of the dictator and his regime?”
“We created out movement to promote change at least in our region, to prevent Kalmyks from taking part in this murderous and genocidal war, and to make them understand that the Kremlin has driven us to the point at which people are willing to give up their lives for crumbs from the master’s table.”
He says he is “confident” that the anti-war movement is “only the starting point for the upcoming struggle for federalization: The war has boosted the people’s self-identification. That is, the Kremlin only uses us when it needs us. When there’s a war on, ‘we’re all brothers.’ In peacetime, ‘you’re gooks’ and ‘we only rent to Slavs.’”
“We used to call Ukrainians brothers too,” Mandhiyev says. “But you don’t treat a brother like this. I think we are about to see ethnic republics display more self-awareness and demand real federalization from the Kremlin, not just promises on paper. Unless this issue is resolved, the situation could spiral into a civil war.”
His counterparts in other republics share that view. One in Tuva says that “we will continue our activities until the war ends, but we hope that our movement has a bigger future afterward. We hope to play a role in steering Tuva toward democracy and creating the conditions for the genuine federalization of Russia.”
And another in Sakha says that “the participants of our movement [Sakha Against the War] are strongly opposed to all cases of the Kremlin’s military aggression, both against sovereign states like Georgia, Syria and Ukraine, and against Russian regions, such as the Chechen Wars for the independence of Ichkeria.”
Since Russia began its intervention in Ukraine in 2014, he says, “our activists have been vocal in denouncing the annexation of Crimea.” Russian repressive laws have kept many quiet. But the war has exposed many problems in Russia. And “our objective is to send a wake-up call” not only to Sakha but to Moscow.
“We want to send ripples across the swamp of fear and silence that has long been stagnant,” he continues. “Our community has attracted the attention of many other anti-war movement as well as consolidating such people from Sakha and beyond.”
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