The Ukrainian crisis has once again kindled the flames of Russian separatism—a problem that has plagued the authorities for many years. On August 17, 2014, the so-called “March for the Federalization of Siberia” was supposed to take place in Novosibirsk, but it was forbidden from occurring by the local authorities. All articles covering the issue were retracted upon the request of Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media watchdog. Writer and journalist Alexander Podrabinek discusses which Russian regions have the potential to become breakaways.
Russia’s burst of separatism is nothing extraordinary: it was predicted by both independent analysts and the authorities. The latter prepared for it in its typical brutal manner by passing new laws punishing separatist propaganda. Although these laws haven’t impacted the popularity of the separatist movement in any way, the government seems to be incapable of adopting a more reasonable approach.
There are two ways to fight the separatist regions’ efforts to break away from the state. The first strategy is to make the state an attractive place so that the whole idea of separating from it would seem to amount to suicide. But making the state attractive takes much effort—intellectual, economic, legal, cultural, and otherwise. Most of all, this task demands that the state respect its citizens and accept that their rights are a source of power in the country.
The second way of combating separatism is much easier and bloodier: prohibit discussions of separatism and punish those who dare to open their mouths. This way demands significant police resources, a state-controlled judiciary, and a flexible penitentiary system. It’s an ideal strategy for an authoritarian state.
Having chosen the second way of suppressing separatism, Vladimir Putin’s regime has acted accordingly. New laws have been passed as a preventive measure. In order to tamp down the first spark of separatism, police forces and the administrative machine are being used together.
A natural hotbed of tensions is the Kaliningrad region, a Russian exclave surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. This territory used to belong to Eastern Prussia and was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II. The idea of restoring Kaliningrad’s historical name of Konigsberg remains popular among the local community and supposedly even the local authorities. Kaliningrad lies 370 kilometers from Warsaw by bus, 400 kilometers from Vilnius, 700 kilometers from Berlin, and 1300 kilometers from Moscow.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a Baltic regional party was created in Kaliningrad. Such a party had been prohibited, of course, but the ideas and people remained. This spring, three young men hung a German flag on the Kaliningrad Department of the Federal Security Service building. At the same time, an Internet campaign was launched urging the Kaliningrad region to join Lithuania. All three young men were arrested and accused of hooliganism.
These are not the only indications of the separatist trend in the region. Sixty percent of the region’s population owns an international passport, and 25 percent hold multiple entry visas to the European Union. These numbers are very high, considering that 80 percent of the Russian population in general has never been abroad. Local youth frequently leave Kaliningrad to study abroad at the universities of neighboring countries, and numerous people purchase real estate abroad and receive resident status there. Many people even prefer to send their children to high schools in Lithuania and Poland. For them, Europe is close, while Russia is far away.
One of the reasons for the increasing separatist belief is the federal authorities’ unjust distribution of tax revenues, which has negatively impacted some regions’ economies. It comes as no surprise that the “Stop Feeding Moscow!” slogan has become so popular Ural, Siberia, and Yakutia.
There are other reasons for separatism besides geographical ones. In Novosibirsk, the so-called “March for the Federalization of Siberia,” organized around the slogan “Stop Feeding Moscow!” was supposed to take place on August 17, 2014. The initiative for this march came from the prominent modern artist Artem Loskutov. Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media watchdog, however, issued warnings to seventeen Russian media outlets that planned to cover the march. Ultimately, four of the march’s organizers were arrested, and as a result, the event was cancelled.
Siberian separatism has a long history. The idea of Siberian autonomy was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Society of Siberian Independence was created. In 1865, many members of this organization were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. After the 1917 October Revolution, these ideas were revived. The Tomsk legislature adopted a resolution “On the Autonomous Region of Siberia,” and a white and green flag of Siberia was established. But after the Bolsheviks took over the country, all talk of separatism faded out.
The recent Ukrainian events have enkindled these old flames of separatism once again—and not just in Kaliningrad and Siberia. “Marches for federalization” were planned in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Belgorod, Kaliningrad, and Krasnodar. These plans all failed, but the idea behind them remains alive, although mostly on the Internet. For example, the so-called Kuban Republic (Kuban is a southern region of Russia) was proclaimed on the Internet—it has its own flag and a mandate of representing the Cossacks of Kuban.
Separatism stems from different reasons. One of the strongest motives for separatism is religion. The government’s preferential treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church causes strong feelings not only among other religious communities, especially in the regions where the majority of the population is Muslim, but also among secular society. Separatist sympathies are strong in Tatarstan and Bashkiria, as well as in Chechnya and other republics of the Northern Caucasus, where the Muslim population is dominant. Dissatisfaction with the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin has also caused the growth of separatist sentiment in Tuva and Buryatia.
Another reason for the increasing separatist belief is the federal authorities’ unjust distribution of tax revenues, which has negatively impacted some regions’ economies. It comes as no surprise that the “Stop Feeding Moscow!” slogan has become so popular in Ural, Siberia, and Yakutia, which possess colossal natural resources and feel left out when the government sends them only a fraction of the amount that they paid in taxes to the federal budget.
In some regions, however, separatism has historic roots. For example, the Karelia republic recently tried to hold a referendum to join Finland. Separatist sentiment in this region dates back to the 1920s, when attempts were first made to create a Northern Karelian state (or the Republic of Ukhta). People from the Kuril Islands, acquired by the Soviet Union after World War II, also recently collected signatures in support of joining Japan, and people from Ivangorod collected signatures to join the bordering state of Estonia.
In times of political instability, social breakdown, and threats from the state, many territories feel the urge to find a better life by breaking away and joining neighboring countries. One might blame the separatists, but it would be more reasonable to look for the root causes of people’s disaffection inside the Kremlin. Unfortunately, the current Russian authorities are incapable of using this method of problem-solving.