By Paul Goble
Russia today does not face the kind of general disintegration that led to the end of the USSR, but it may lose the North Caucasus and several other republics along its southern borders, something that will cost it less than one percent of its territory and less than seven percent of its population, according to Vladislav Inozemtsev.
The notion that the country will fall apart the way the Soviet Union did, the Moscow analyst says, ignores economic and political realities – the integration of the existing regions in terms of production and distribution and both the levers Moscow has and the threat of foreign occupation (snob.ru/selected/entry/96635).
His analysis is a response to speculation that Russia is at risk of coming apart. (See, for example, nr2.ru/News/politics_and_society/Rezhim-uslovnogo-Girkina-razorvet-Rossiyu-v-klochya-104044.html and worldif.economist.com/article/2/what-if-russia-breaks-up-the-peril-beyond-putin, the latter of which Inozemtsev sites.
Most of his 3500-word article is devoted to explaining why the Russian Federation now is not like the USSR in 1991; but that makes what he says about a related threat that Inozemtsev says may prove even more significant: the emergence of a pan-regional fronde in which the regions impose on Moscow their conditions for remaining within the country.
The Moscow economist says there are three reasons for concluding that the Russian Federation is not under threat of disintegration. First, he says, “in contemporary Russia, there does not exist that national-religious basis for ‘the sovereignization’ of its component parts,” except along the southern border.
Second, he argues, “the disintegration of a country like Russia cannot bring economic benefits to either the Russian people as a whole or any of its potentially independent territories.” And third, in his view, “the disintegration of Russia … would be marked by the transfer of part of its present-day territory to the jurisdiction of foreign states.”
That in itself would “inflict significant harm to Russian national self-consciousness and become the basis for unpredictable forms and amount of Russian nationalism.” (Putin’s comments in occupied Crimea about Ukraine being under “foreign” rule are an example of this, although one Inozemtsev doesn’t mention in this essay.)
“Taking all these circumstances into consideration,” he says, he “cannot foresee the causes and occasions from ‘centrifugal’ forces in Russia now to become a dominant political trend.”
“With one exception,” he then adds; and that involves something that the authors of the Economist article do no consider, although it is potentially more attractive and likely than the others. “This variant,” Inozemtsev says, “could be called the scenario of ‘an anti-Moscow fronde.”
Historically, he points out, Russia came into existence “not as a federation of territories … but as a classical colonial power. From the late middle ages, Muscovia having freed itself from the protectorate of the Horde began to expand first by settlement and then by military colonies in the adjoining territories.”
Until the middle of the 20th century, it was able to pursue that policy, but “at the end of [that] century, imperial overstretch reached its limit, and the military colonies … fell away. What remained were only those in which the colonizers formed a majority and secured the assimilation of local peoples,” something that supports Russia’s current borders.
But as the experience of many colonies elsewhere shows, anger at and opposition to the metropolitan center occurred even when “the population overwhelmingly consisted of people from the metropolitan country,” as happened in the case of the US. To be sure, the UK and the US were separated by an ocean, “but this can change the details, not the principle.”
If Russia enters into a prolonged period of economic decline and politican instability, Moscow as the center of power almost certainly will face demands from Russians that the government be accountable to them, both individually and collectively in the form of the regions and republics in which they live.
Such a demand will not entail one for “the separation of part of the state from Muscovy but rather the subordination of [the current center] to the will of the rest of the population of the country.” Those that have separated from the former empire” have experienced difficulties that these new demanders will seek to avoid.
“The Soviet Union fell apart,” Inozemtsev says, “because it lacked the strength to overcome its imperial nature. Russia will not repeat that path since now it is already not an empire, but a nation state daydreaming about empire. And thus the only real goal of Russian separatists would be not separation from Moscow but its subordination to their will.”
That would reflect a dawning understanding that Russia is not something finished as a project but rather that it must be structured to reflect the fact that it is “a complex country” and that “in its current borders, Russian represents a conglomeration of Muscovy and its colonies by settlement.”
The task ahead, Inosemtsev continues, lies “in the revival of self-consciousness and local identities of citizens iin various pars of this strange formation” so that those regions which produce the most will have more power and Moscow which produces very little will have significantly less.
To the extent that Russia moves in that direction, the Moscow economist argues, its course will not be like the disintegration of the USSR or Yugoslavia but rather more like “the path chosen 800 years ago by the English barons who forced the kind to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede.”
“The transformation of Russia into a genuine federation, even with the right of exit for its component subjects and of Moscow into one of its largest” but least productive components represents, he argues in conclusion, “not the salvation of the country from disintegration … but a basis for development in which all Russians without exception have an interest.”