20 years under Putin: a timeline

At the end of July, Vladimir Putin signed a law toughening criminal punishments for calls for separatism. According to writer and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, the Kremlin in this way has revealed its fear that the achievements of the Ukrainian separatists might put in motion potentially threatening mechanisms in Russia.


While enkindling separatist moods in Ukraine and Crimea, the Kremlin grew to fear separatism in Russia. Photo: AP


Separatism is a dangerous instrument, and the Kremlin understands its use very well. The tool of separatism has been wielded very effectively in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and it might work just as well in Russia too. Since Ukraine is a unitary state and Russia is a federation, it might be even more effective in Russia. The seeds of separatism grow a lot better in federative soil.

Putin and his company’s fear of separatism is almost a panic. Viewed from the outside, Russia seems to be a strong and stable country that is safe from inner discord. But people in the Kremlin know that the federal power is weak and illegitimate, holding its position only through propaganda and its readiness to use military and police force. This isn’t a very solid foundation, especially given the lack of public support. In such conditions, any separatist movement would require an immediate and powerful reaction. If there were several sources of separatist feeling, the federal power just wouldn’t have enough strength to fight them all.

In trying to prevent the spread of separatism, the federal power has taken several preventive measures. On one side, it has tried to gain public support by uniting society around the idea of a small victorious annexation of Crimea and an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine. On the other side, it aims to frighten the population by imposing severe punishments on even the mere expression of separatist sentiment in public. Taken together, these measures add up to the traditional “carrot and stick” approach.

At the end of December 2013, Vladimir Putin signed a draft law that would add to the Criminal Code an Article 280.1, “Public appeals to take actions directed toward violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” This article suggests a punishment of three years of deprivation of freedom for public separatist appeals and up to five years in the case of appeals made through mass media or the Internet. By that time, Putin will have prepared a plan of how to act if the Ukrainian events spin beyond the harsh Kremlin control. While intending to keep acting in Ukraine, he is preparing a safety net for himself.

It was announced that the new article would become operative on May 9, 2014. But in May of 2014, Ukraine was a different state than what it had been in December 2013. Even in the worst-case scenario, Putin might have foreseen Yanukovich’s intractability, but he hardly could have expected that the president would be pushed aside and Ukraine would split from post-Soviet Russia so rapidly.

While kindling a separatist spirit in Ukraine and Crimea, the Kremlin grew to fear separatism in Russia at the same time. There is no other reason to explain the fact that in July, just two months after Article 280.1 became effective, a new law was passed making the punishments for these acts even more severe. Now, for violation of the first part of the article, the punishment would be four years of deprivation of freedom instead of three, and for violation of the second part, additional punishments have been tacked onto the five-year sentence, such as prohibitions on occupying certain posts or being engaged in certain work for the term of four years.

And this is keeping in mind that there hasn’t been a single known case of enforcement of this law since May 2014, when it was enacted, up to July, when it was changed. So what happened within this time? What was it that the legislators missed in December 2013—what dangers did they overlook?

Judging from all that, the Kremlin is in a panic because of the possibility of Crimean Tartar resistance to the federal Russian power. This is what caused the toughening of the law against separatism.

The answer is simple: they just didn’t foresee the annexation of Crimea—or at least not in the way that it what happened. It happened that the Crimean Tartars don’t acknowledge the annexation, and in the new geopolitical configuration, they look like Russian separatists, in the Kremlin’s point of view. The stricter penalties for expressions of separatist belief are a clear reply to the Crimean Tartars’ pro-Ukrainian position.

Of course, the Kremlin wanted to escape such a turn of events. That was the reason for Putin’s telephone talk with the leader of the Crimean Tartars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, in March of 2014. Putin promised to provide the Crimean Tartars with previously unseen benefits after Crimea joined the Russian Federation. That is why, after failing to gain Dzhemilev’s support, Putin prohibited him from entering Russia (and Crimea!), counting on the fact that Dzhemilev’s return would become a token coin in a trade for the Crimean Tartars’ loyalty to the Kremlin. And that is why now in Moscow the most weak-spirited and cowardly representatives of the Crimean Tartars who would be ready to serve the Kremlin contrary to the interests of their own people are being urgently recruited by the administration.

Judging from all that, the Kremlin is in a panic because of the possibility of Crimean Tartar resistance to the federal Russian power. This is what caused the toughening of the law against separatism. A separatist success in Ukraine might put in motion dangerous mechanisms in Russia. Certain regions are not very fond of Moscow in the first place, for many reasons, such as the transfer of almost all of their tax proceeds to the central administration, their lack of independence in handling personnel issues, and the Kremlin’s consistent misunderstanding of local problems. The Russian provinces have always disliked Moscow, and in a situation of growing destabilization, it only takes a lit match to set a blaze of uncontrolled separatism. The federal power, together with Putin’s corporation, would easily be destroyed in this fire, as would Russia itself, along with its imperial ambitions.

The question persists of what would survive the ruins: separated communities, ready for the new birth of statehood, or simply crowds of people unable to organize themselves?