Staunton, Feb. 9 –Vladimir Putin is reversing one of the most important gains non-Russians made at the end of Soviet times by systematically reducing the number of non-Russians in positions of power in the republics and in at least one case – Mari El -- has eliminated all members of the titular nationality from that republic’s council of ministers.
After the death of Stalin, non-Russians often had the symbolically important head of government in the union and autonomous republics but he was often controlled by a deputy from outside the republic and quite often an ethnic Russian. Non-Russians often filled education and culture ministries, but they until the 1980s did not head interior or other power ministries.
Under Brezhnev and subsequently, non-Russians made gains first in the union republics and then in the autonomous republics of the RSFSR, with many members of these nationalities viewing each new position that their co-ethnics occupied as a victory and a sign that they were gaining more control over their lives.
With the independence of the union republics in 1991, that pattern no longer held for them: they formed their own governments and typically drew almost exclusively from their titular nationalities. But the autonomous republics within the RSFSR continued to aspire to control more of the top jobs.
They had some success under Yeltsin in the 1990s, but since Putin took power in 2000, their progress has been stopped everywhere and rolled back in many places, a reflection of his desire to recentralize and Russianize the government and to prevent the non-Russians from gaining the kinds of experience that might lead to challenges of Moscow’s authority.
Just how far this campaign has gone is highlighted in the case of Mari El, a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga where in the new republic cabinet just formed, there is not a single Mari and where most of the posts are occupied by ethnic Russians from outside the republic (mariuver.com/2023/02/09/net-mesta-mari/#more-71948).
That is likely what Putin is striving for more generally; but if he is, it may very well backfire. When non-Russians see that the Kremlin no longer trusts them to run their own affairs even in this often symbolic way, they may decide that their only hope is to pursue independence, something many of them might not have done otherwise.