By Paul Goble
Exploiting current discussions about the need for all residents of the Russian Federation to identify themselves in civic rather than ethnic terms, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has stepped up his campaign to do away with the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation.
On Tuesday, Zhirinovsky told a press conference in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, that “in the Russian Empire, there was the correct territorial division” of the country, one without any “national subjects” because territories were divided into governships and bore geographic names (finugor.ru/node/16295).
And yesterday, the LDPR leader again called for the end of national republics within Russia in a radio broadcast for Chechen television, saying that “all national republics should be converted into geographic designations: Not Tataria, the capital of Kazan but Kazan kray, not Bashkiria, but Ufa kray” and so on (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=244395).
Precisely because of his flamboyance, Zhirinovsky’s proposals are often dismissed out of hand, but his statements often reflect what others in Moscow are thinking but are not yet prepared to say. And his calls for the elimination of national republics over the last 20 years have tracked with the attitudes of others in the Russian capital.
Consequently, his comments deserve close attention, not because they are necessarily going to be translated immediately into action but because they form part of Russian thinking – and even more because non-Russians are likely to see his proposals as a serious threat to their remaining powers.
In his remarks in the Komi capital, Zhirinovsky not only noted that the designations of many places came from geography rather than ethnicity but said that he expected that “in the near future, there will be formed “20 major territorial entities which will have only geographic names.”
“We have 100 nationalities” in the Russian Federation, the LDPR leader said, “but this does not mean that we will be shutting them down. [Rather,] for the successful development of the regions are needed territorial forms. Komis, Karels, Udmurts – all these are the Finno-Ugric group; here there are no problems.”
He added that “for this division of the country,” he began speaking “20 years ago. We see,” he said, “to what national divisions lead – a hidden civil war is going on. The division of the country took place in 1991; we lost a third of the territory and half of the population, when the republics left it.”
And he suggested Russians should consider the American experience: “In the US, there are 50 states and 300 million people.” Russia in contrast has “83 regions and 140 million.” When six subjects were amalgamated with larger units, they benefited, Zhirionovsky said, because Moscow put more money into them to sweeten the deal.
In his comments to Chechen television, Zhirinovsky said much the same but extended his idea to the North Caucasus and Middle Volga, regions which have larger populations and in many cases more intense ethnic identification with particular republics than is the case in at least some Finno-Ugric areas.
Why does he want to take this step of eliminating ethnically defined republics, Zhirinovsky asked rhetorically, and he immediately answered “in order that the names of national regions won’t be mentioned, and people won’t be offended” by reports about criminals and terrorists from their areas.
“Why in recent years have the names Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan and the like so often been mentioned in the news media” with regard to terrorists? If something happens in any point of Russia, and the individual is from there, that will be reported. Why? Because this is a significant indicator for police as to where they should begin their search.”
“If we didn’t have any republics, no one would ever make use of nationality,” Zhirinovsky said.
And he added that he had always opposed ethnic republics “because there is no such system anywhere in the world or ever was one. The Bolsheviks thought it up.” This division led to the end of the Soviet Union and is the cause of no end of difficulties in the Russian Federation now.
(It is worth recalling, although Zhirinovsky does not, that there is a long tradition in Russia and the Soviet Union to suggest dividing up the country on a non-ethnic basis like the US. One of the Decembrists proposed dividing the empire into 13 states, and shortly before the USSR disintegrated, Mikhail Gorbachev mused in public about dividing the Soviet Union into 50.)
As it often does, Russia’s New Region news agency has launched an online poll about Zhirinovsky’s proposal. While the results are hardly likely to be scientific – those who respond are entirely self-selected – the decision of the agency’s editors suggests that they at least believe LDPR leader’s proposals have some support (www.nr2.ru/moskow/321082.html).