20 years under Putin: a timeline

Moscow is rapidly establishing itself as Europe’s largest state sponsor of separatist movements. But can Russia play this role and at the same time contain secessionist sentiments within its own borders? Independent journalist Konstantin Fischer examines the Kremlin’s precarious double game when it comes to separatism.


Donbass militia on armoured military vehicles with a Russian flag in the town of Slavyansk, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Mikhail Pochuyev / TASS


Over the past 18 months, Russia has firmly put separatism back on the map of Europe. The self-declared “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine are the largest secessionist territories on the continent, comprising more than 3 million people and an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. Despite the Kremlin’s denials, without Russian money, weapons, and fighters, the two entities would have never appeared, even in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution.

The recent lull in fighting in the Donbass has only heightened fears that the conflict there will be “frozen” like in the conspicuous number of breakaway territories that have sprung up in former Soviet countries since the 1990s. Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova emerged largely thanks to Russian influence, while Russian money and military backing are crucial for the survival of Nagorny Karabakh, the Armenian-held territory inside Azerbaijan.

Russia gave new impetus to secessionist movements across the globe last year when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, demonstrating that existing borders can easily be wiped from the map. The government claims to promote local self-determination. In September, a separatism conference was even held in Moscow, with participants from localities such as Texas, Northern Ireland, and Catalonia. The two-day gathering was organized by a hitherto little-known group called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, which appears to be funded partly by the Kremlin.

But Moscow only backs separatist groups outside its own borders, lending credence to the theory that its support is purely self-interested. In the 1990s, separatism was rife in Russia’s ethnic republics, several of which wanted to follow the Soviet Union’s former constituent republics in becoming independent. Moscow reached a political deal with Tatarstan, offering the central Russian region a large degree of autonomy, but it waged two vicious wars with separatists in Chechnya, during which tens of thousands perished.

Now, some pundits argue that events in Ukraine and Moscow’s increasingly heavy-handed policies toward Russia’s regions might fuel the rise of separatism in Russia once again. But are the conditions right for any major movements to emerge?


Regional Backlash

The Kremlin’s support for ethnic Russian nationalism during the Ukraine crisis could trigger a backlash from the country’s non-Russian peoples, according to Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and an expert on the regions. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, President Vladimir Putin began talking about Moscow’s responsibility vis-a-vis the “Russian World,” i.e. ethnic Russians and Russian speakers both inside and outside of Russia proper. Earlier this year, Putin strengthened the status of Russian language classes in schools, raising fears that instruction of non-Russian languages will decline further.

“Moscow risks negative responses in the regions and rising anti-Russian nationalism,” Petrov said in a telephone interview.

Petrov argued that unlike in the 1990s, there is little appetite among today’s regional leaders to take on the federal center. Rather, he said, the current regional elites might be too weak to contain ethnic nationalist sentiment among local populations. As examples, Petrov pointed to Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the two biggest Muslim regions in central Russia, whose current leaders, Rustam Minnikhanov and Rustem Khamitov, are widely seen as lacking the authority commanded by their predecessors, Mintimer Shamiyev and Murtaza Rakhimov.

The ongoing economic crisis also reduces Moscow’s ability to keep up its longstanding policy of buying the loyalty of powerful regional elites. A case in point is Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov, a former separatist fighter, has been given free rein and vast sums of money from federal coffers to run the troubled North Caucasus region as he pleases. In exchange, Kadyrov, whom critics accuse of ruthlessly oppressing and even murdering his opponents, regularly declares his absolute loyalty to Putin, even sending “volunteers” to fight alongside the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. No signs have appeared that Kadyrov is receiving less in federal subsidies or is becoming dissatisfied. The situation could shift quickly, however, if the Kremlin is forced to make sizable new budget cuts.

Elsewhere in the ethnically diverse North Caucasus, no significant movement has sprung up against ethnic Russians or the Russian government, although Islamic extremists have been waging a low-level insurgency for years in an attempt to carve out a caliphate.

Ever sensitive to the possibility of secessionist sentiments, the Kremlin has made clear that it will crack down hard on any nascent movements. Putin signed a law last year that significantly expanded the possible punishment for anyone calling for a region’s secession from Russia: Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code stipulates up to five years in prison for separatist calls if they are made in a media outlet or online, including on social networks. In September, a court in Tatarstan sentenced activist Rafis Kashapov to three years in jail on such charges.


‘Moscow Is Creating Disaster’

The Kremlin’s move to strengthen control of the regions may end up backfiring, however. Paul Goble, a veteran U.S.-based analyst who has studied regionalism in the Soviet Union and Russia for decades, argues that Putin’s policy of hyper-centralisation is bound to trigger a response from the increasingly neglected and marginalized regions. “I have no doubt that the borders of the Russian Federation five to ten years from now will be very different than they are today,” Goble said in a Radio Liberty podcast in August. “Moscow is creating disaster for itself.”

On paper, Russia remains a federation of more than 80 regions, including 21 ethnic republics, who are supposed to be home to its ethnic minorities. But federalism has been largely dismantled since Putin first came to power in 2000, and the Kremlin’s top-down model of governance, dubbed the “power vertical,” has left the regions with little room to maneuver. Increasingly dependent on political directives and financial transfers from Moscow, regional elites were forced to strike a deal with the Kremlin: if they promised loyalty and high election results, the center would turn a blind eye to questionable forms of government. The Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, was also transformed from the legitimate voice of the regions in Moscow (modeled on the U.S. Senate) into a wholly subservient chamber whose main raison d’etre is offering sinecures to former regional officials.

Worsening relations between the center and the periphery, however, do not necessarily foster a rise in separatist sentiments, let alone increase the likelihood of territories actually breaking off from Russia. For that to happen, there needs to be a determined political force with sufficient power to succeed—and no movement that could challenge the federal center is currently visible in any Russian region.

Since the Ukraine conflict began, Moscow has tightened the screws on the regions further still. Despite the reintroduction of direct gubernatorial elections in 2012, the Kremlin has sent clear signals that it is ready to crack down on regional leaders at any moment. In March, Putin fired the governor of Sakhalin, the oil-rich island off the Pacific coast, after authorities charged him in a massive bribery scheme. Then in September, the head of the Komi republic, a resource-rich northern region, got the axe after being accused of corruption, as well as the more heinous charge of running a criminal gang.

The fact that the two former governors remain in detention awaiting trial is widely seen as a warning to other regional bosses that they can no longer buy impunity by merely being loyal and returning favorable election results. By doing this, Putin risks provoking conflicts within the ruling class and “creating conditions for the notorious ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ (war of all against all),” liberal analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote in a recent research paper.


Unlikely Scenario?

Worsening relations between the center and the periphery, however, do not necessarily foster a rise in separatist sentiments, let alone increase the likelihood of territories actually breaking off from Russia. For that to happen, there needs to be a determined political force with sufficient power to succeed—and no movement that could challenge the federal center is currently visible in any Russian region.

Even if such a movement were to emerge, most of the country’s non-Russian speaking republics hardly qualify as candidates for viable independent states. Take Tatarstan, which lies nowhere close to a state border and is deeply integrated in the Russian economy. If the region broke away, it would be an enclave completely dependent on Moscow’s goodwill. Another factor is that the populations of Russia’s ethno-political entities are highly heterogeneous, thanks to the arbitrary territorial boundaries inherited from Soviet Nationalities Commissar Joseph Stalin. For instance, Russia officially has more than 5 million ethnic Tatars nationwide, but more than half of them live outside Tatarstan proper, while Russians make up almost 40 percent of the population in the Tatars’ “native” republic.

The weakness of non-Russian nationalism inside Russia has led scholars to look at the possibility of separatism cropping up in entirely Russian-speaking areas. In recent months, their focus has been on Kaliningrad and Siberia, two regions that have suffered significantly from Moscow-centric policies enacted under Putin.

Siberia is an enormous piece of territory that represents a potentially decisive part of Russia, comprising almost 40 million people, or 27 percent of the population. A protest movement has emerged there in recent years, one fueled by the widespread feeling that little of the region’s abundant natural resource revenues remain in Siberia. But the movement’s impact has been limited. Siberians did display some degree of dissent in September, when voters in Irkutsk, an industrial region with 2.5 million inhabitants, ousted the incumbent Putin-loyalist as governor and voted in a Communist instead.

But just like Tatarstan, much of Siberia is deeply integrated into Russia’s centralized economy, and every major company active in the region has its headquarters in Moscow. “Siberia is in many ways a Russian colony, ” Inozemtsev, the liberal analyst, said in a telephone interview. (Colonized populations do have a history of rebelling against their colonizers, however.)

Kaliningrad, on the other hand, is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea where about 25 percent of the roughly 1 million residents have EU visas. That figure that has been quoted to support the thesis that Kaliningraders are oriented more toward Europe than toward Russia, from which they are separated by the territories of Lithuania and Belarus.

Many experts, however, doubt that separatist movements can succeed in ethnically homogenous environments such as Siberia and Kaliningrad, where ethnic Russians are the dominant group. “I know of no case worldwide where a region inhabited by the same ethnic, religious, and linguistic group breaks away from a country,” Inozemtsev said.

He argued that the existence of a large number of breakaway statelets in Russia’s neighborhood was not a sign that separatism is ingrained in the region, but rather a consequence of very active influence by the Russian government. “It is hard to see an outside power wielding such influence inside Russia today,” Inozemtsev said.

This has not stopped Ukrainians who are angry about Russia chipping away at their state from encouraging the idea. "We should organize referendums in Russia, in Kaliningrad and in the Kuril Islands," said Alexei, a member of a team that worked to shore up defences against separatists in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, to a reporter last year.

But Ukraine, unlike Russia, probably wouldn’t do something so blatantly hypocritical.